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Sacramento Kings get back on track defensively in win over Cleveland Cavaliers

The Kings’ Rudy Gay hugs Ben McLemore after a first-half basket. Gay scored 23 points.
The Kings’ Rudy Gay hugs Ben McLemore after a first-half basket. Gay scored 23 points. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

There are nights the Kings struggle to explain exactly what’s going on with themselves on the court.

Some nights, they are aggressive on both ends of the floor, but too many nights lately, they look as if defense is optional.

Sunday, the defensive-minded Kings were back, and they overwhelmed the Cleveland Cavaliers 103-84 at Sleep Train Arena.

The Kings committed a season-low five turnovers, including just one in the first half, and scored 22 points off 14 Cleveland turnovers to coast to a victory after a tight first quarter.

In the past three games, the Kings have played solid defense in two, including Wednesday, when they set several season bests in a victory over Oklahoma City. In between was a case of the matador-defense Kings, who allowed Denver to have its way too often in a loss Friday.

So what’s the key to seeing more of Sunday’s Kings, who were clearly engaged and communicating on defense to keep All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love from having huge games?

“When we come in and we’re all locked in and our energy is high, that’s the biggest thing,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “When we come out with energy the way we did (Sunday), we can make mistakes, but that energy and effort will make up for it.”

The Kings had plenty of that after the first quarter, when Irving had 14 points and Cleveland trailed 30-29. The Cavaliers shot 35.6 percent (21 for 59) in the final three quarters.

“(Sunday) was a great indicator of who we can be,” Kings coach Tyrone Corbin said. “The Oklahoma City game was a great indicator of how we can play and have a chance to compete against the top teams in this league. We just have to look for some consistency.”

The Kings (16-21) were consistent with their defense after the first quarter, holding the Cavaliers (19-19) to 55 points.

The tricky thing for the Kings is maintaining their defensive focus every game, not just against a struggling Cleveland team that is 1-7 in its past eight games with LeBron James out because of left knee and low back strains.

“We’ve got to find a way to be consistent,” Cousins said. “We can’t come out one night and be good defending and the next night look like a totally different team.”

It also helps when the Kings stick to the plan on offense, which was for Cousins and Rudy Gay to exploit advantages in the post.

Cousins finished with game highs of 26 points, 13 rebounds, four steals and three blocks. The steals matched a season high for Cousins. And coming off a seven-turnover game Friday, Cousins had only one turnover to go with five assists.

Gay had 23 points, two steals and a block. Darren Collison had 16 points and six assists.

Gay said defense is the key for the Kings to establish consistency.

“I believe in basketball you can always score with defense,” Gay said. “You’re only as good as your defense. If you’re stopping people, you can turn that into offense easily. The NBA is getting away from running sets; you have to be able to score in transition. If you’re not getting stops and taking the ball out the hoop every time, it’s tough to do that.”

Irving finished with 21 points and seven assists, and Love had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

The Kings are 5-8 under Corbin, who replaced Michael Malone on Dec. 14. Gay said the Kings took a small step toward finding their way under Corbin with Sunday’s performance.

“We had a good win (Sunday), but we have to get a lot more for us to be where we want to be,” Gay said. “I think we all know what kind of team we can be, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

And a lot of defense, Collison said.

“When we really commit to defense, then it becomes a little bit easier for us,” he said.

Follow The Bee’s Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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