Ailene Voisin

Kings’ Ty Lawson quietly makes a career and lifestyle comeback

So now we remember. Ty Lawson. That’s the guy. The sturdy but speedy former Denver Nuggets point guard who ranked among the league leaders in assists. Who scoots around screens and bigger players for driving layups. Who screeches to a stop at the foul line for a step-back jumper. Who pushes the ball 94 feet and finds teammates for open jumpers.

Crafty, clever, pesky. Unselfish. Given the Kings’ history of ball-stopping point guards, let’s not forget that, either.

Kings general manager Vlade Divac is keeping his fingers crossed, but signing Lawson to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract is proving to be one of his best offseason moves. True, it’s early. The former North Carolina standout missed a team flight during the preseason, rekindling memories and revisiting stories about his issues with alcohol abuse, the demon that ended his time with the Nuggets and contributed to ineffective stops in Houston and Indiana.

But also true: Since the preseason incident and a lengthy conversation with Divac, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Lawson has followed the rules and, temporarily or otherwise, soothed the team’s chronic backcourt woes. The combination of Lawson and Darren Collison has changed the conversation, shifted the focus to other issues, say, whether the Kings should move Rudy Gay before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, how to resolve the dilemma at shooting guard, how to keep all the players on a veteran-heavy roster happy? And is there time to give a look to the rookies, who continue shuttling between Reno and Sacramento?

Winning, as usual, tamps down the debate. The Kings and four-game winning streaks are not fast friends.

Yet as they flew to Portland to face the slumping Trail Blazers on Wednesday night, the Kings (14-17) are in eighth place in a weakened Western Conference and staring down on the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers, the disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns.

In other words, as the calendar turns, they at least can envision occupying that eighth and final postseason berth and meeting the Golden State Warriors in the opening round. Given principal owner Vivek Ranadive’s directive to assemble a veteran roster and push for the postseason in Year 1 at Golden 1 Center rather than build for the future, reaching the 2017 playoffs would validate their much-discussed/debated approach and end a decade-long playoff absence.

Lawson looms as a significant factor in determining whether the Kings make the playoffs. After the early bumps, the eight-year veteran has contributed in ways that aren’t necessarily reflected in the box score. He pushes the pace, recognizes where teammates need and want the ball, sneaks into the lane and knocks balls loose, harasses opposing point guards and surprises with that midrange jumper.

Both Lawson and Collison convert the jumper from the foul line and elbow area – a lost art in a modern game that preaches layups and 3-point shots.

During the closing minutes of Monday’s escape against Philadelphia, Lawson’s two free throws and 18-footer slowed the 76ers’ momentum and enabled the Kings to regain the lead in the closing minutes.

“He makes the game really easy for people and gets up and down the floor, and gets in the paint,” coach Dave Joerger said. “He’s playing really well. It’s been a successful week because of Ty Lawson.”

Kosta Koufos, Lawson’s former Nuggets teammate, is in the minority; he is not surprised by the intuitive playmaker’s re-emergence.

“Ty and I were teammates for 3 1/2 years in Denver,” Koufos said, “and I said from the start, he’s one of the best point guards in the league. He got a little bit of a look here and that’s all he needed. He elevates your game, and like I said, he’s a great guy. Now that he’s producing, people are starting to see it. And he can only improve.”

Lawson, who admittedly labored in the season’s opening weeks while trying to maneuver between the 7-foot Koufos and 6-foot-11 DeMarcus Cousins, said he has adjusted to their differences, particularly on pick-and-rolls. Koufos sets bruising screens and rolls to the basket, while Cousins routinely pops outside for jumpers or takes his man one-on-one.

“This guy, that guy, where they want the ball,” Lawson said. “But I think it’s more a mindset. I’m ready to attack. When I got here, it was like, ‘I’ll come off the pick-and-roll and just try to pass.’ I wasn’t putting any pressure on the defense. Now I’m coming down, and if I’ve got the shot, or I can attack and pass it back out, just be aggressive.”

Lawson, who backs up Collison but can be on the floor in the final minutes, exhaled loudly when asked about his apparent stability at the moment. Those four arrests for driving under the influence – two in seven months in 2015 – are not forgotten. The fact he signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Kings is a daily reminder of his tenuous job security.

“It just feels so good right now,” he said, smiling. “It’s beautiful when everybody is on the same page like we are right now. A four-game win streak? I came here to make the playoffs. That’s my goal. It hasn’t been done for a long time. I want to see some cowbells.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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