Here’s a message that makes a professional athlete with pride cringe: These games aren’t supposed to mean anything; do all you can to lose, help the organization’s draft position.
That’s what teams such as the Kings are supposed to do this time of the season. So leaving the team’s All-Star (DeMarcus Cousins) and the NBA assist leader (Rajon Rondo) at home to rest isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it gives younger players a chance to play.
The Kings really only use two “young” players, Willie Cauley-Stein and Seth Curry. The rest of the Kings are veterans, who without Cousins and Rondo put together a team effort to rally for a 115-106 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
“We love playing the game of basketball, and we love to win,” Kings forward Rudy Gay said. “When you play checkers you aren’t trying to lose. We aren’t worried about draft picks or anything like that. We are just trying to win every game we play and win as many games as we can win this year.”
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It would seem not having Cousins and Rondo, along with Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi being injured, would hamper those chances, but the Kings looked energized playing a very team-oriented style in which seven of the eight Kings had at least 13 points.
None of the four players who were out made the trip. Forward and 14-year veteran Caron Butler said his back was stiff during the game, so he didn’t play, either.
Despite the absences, the ball moved regularly, everyone was involved, and the Kings played much better defense in the second half, capped by the Kings’ 31-18 fourth quarter.
“I think as a coach you always want passing and spacing,” coach George Karl said. “I thought the passing in the second half was pretty dominant. Kosta (Koufos) had a dunk and threw it out for a wide-open three. We had a lot of ‘we’ basketball out there, and it was fun to watch.”
The eight Kings who played all had an assist, and only two failed to record multiple assists. Darren Collison led the Kings with eight assists, and Seth Curry matched his career high with five assists.
Without the ability to just drop the ball off to Cousins or let Rondo handle the ball to find a teammate, the Kings had to make multiple passes to find good shots.
It also helped that the Kings only had seven turnovers, a season-low.
“Obviously Cuz gets however many shots he gets a game, and Rondo has the ball a lot throughout the game,” Curry said. “So other guys got opportunities to make plays tonight, and we tried to share the ball and get good shots.”
The mood of the team after the game was upbeat.
“Guys enjoyed playing tonight,” Collison said. “That’s always a good sign, when guys enjoy playing together. We know Cuz is our best player, and sometimes he’s going to have to take the onus on himself to make plays, but when he’s not there we’ve got to step up and do the same.”
Collison said the Kings’ effort Saturday was dictated by Friday’s loss to Miami when the team rallied from 24 points down to nearly win.
“It sends a message to the guys on the court and the fans that says we’re still going to play the right way, despite circumstances,” Collison said. “It actually carried over from last night’s game toward the end of the third when we made a run in that game. Anytime you have guys contribute off the bench along with the whole starting lineup it makes it fun for everybody.”
Gay led the Kings with 25 points and nine rebounds. Cauley-Stein also had nine rebounds. Curry had 17 points off the bench.
The win moved the Kings into a tie with New York for the seventh-worst record in the NBA. If the Kings’ draft pick falls outside of the top 10 it will go to Chicago as part of a 2011 trade with Cleveland.
That’s not the players’ concern, however. They know Cousins is done playing road games this season (the Kings have two more), and there’s no telling if and when Rondo might sit again.
But the Kings who play have no intention of participating in tanking ballgames.
“We’re the ones on the court trying not to get embarrassed,” Collison said. “It’s easy from the outside looking in to try to have your own agenda and map out a plan and be strategic, but when you’re on the court you’re prone to compete. That’s something you’ve been doing your whole entire life. Regardless of your record or if you’re in or out of the playoffs you’re here to compete.”