No, the Kings didn’t win the season opener Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, for a variety of reasons. They committed silly turnovers. They didn’t get to the foul line. They failed to convert during key possessions. But they competed, they defended, they shared the ball.
And most importantly?
Damn, this was fun.
On those occasions when James Harden, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela weren’t forcing them to stay in their lane, the Kings performed like a group of players who genuinely like each other, who want to play the right way, and who are determined to figure it out, this season or sometime in the near future.
The veterans played like veterans, contributing and mentoring. Vince Carter and his rainbow 3-pointers, George Hill and his probing, timely drives, Garrett Temple with his smart, steady defense. But this was a night to let the kids stay up late to watch ... the kids.
Buddy Hield drilled three jumpers to rally the Kings in the third quarter. Skal Labissiere converted his high-arching jumpers and collected 10 rebounds. Willie Cauley-Stein was the player Kings general manager Vlade Divac implores him to be: an opportunistic double-digit scorer (21 points) and rebounder (10), and a long-limbed gnat around the basket (three blocks).
But the 19-year-old nicknamed “Swipa” stole hearts, stole the night. De’Aaron Fox entered to a rousing ovation with just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter and he wasted little time. Speed is his thing, remember. Two Kings possessions later, and before the Rockets even noticed there was a Fox in the house, he sprinted into the lane and scored the first field goal of his career.
“That’s my go-to move,” Fox explained later. “The ball was in my right hand, and I kind of throw it to my left. I jab right, then I scored with my left. I can score with either hand, but I did it with my left. It’s kind of subtle.”
He is subtle and crafty, deceptive and uncanny, and more charismatic than any Kings point guard since a young Jason Williams. The crowd loved J-Will, and, oh, boy, they love this 19-year-old. For the rest of the evening, as Fox scored 14 points, by simply beating defenders to the basket, other times by probing, studying, then making a move before his man could react, the crowd erupted with a chorus of “ooh” and “aah.”
“Even though I’ve seen him for the last month or so, it’s something to see,” said guard Garrett Temple. “When those lights go on, his ability to get into the paint and push the pace is something I haven’t seen, besides John Wall. When he gets it going, picks his spots, when he gets that jumper down he is going to be hard to guard. His pace can’t be stopped right now. He’s so fast ... a couple of the Houston players were saying to me, ‘He’s just so fast.’ It’s hard to explain.”
If the mood was not as emotional as it was for last season’s opening night of the brand new Golden 1 Center, the vibe was upbeat, and the product encouraging. “To see so many young guys in our rotation, and we didn’t give up, is very encouraging,” Temple added.
Things have changed. These Kings are talking about improving, becoming a team, figuring it out from the beginning, not desperately pushing for a shot at the eighth and final Western Conference berth. Yet in some respects – think Fox and speed – it’s hard to believe it has been a year since the Kings named a street after David Stern, Paul McCartney christened the building with two nights of rock-and-roll classics, and the San Antonio Spurs put on a basketball clinic in the inaugural game in the Golden 1.
Return to the scene of Sacramento’s pinch-me moment – the house that was built to save the Kings – and you might not recognize the players or the place itself. The surrounding area is part construction site, part athletic palace, part party scene.
Starbucks opened a posh coffee bar on the corner of 7th and David J. Stern Walk. Patrons can get sloshed indoors or outdoors at Sauced, or for those who skip the adult beverages, overindulge on every barbecue confection imaginable. Dozens of restaurants and retail shops are in various stages of completion.
And about that boutique hotel, The Sawyer, in the midst of its grand-opening festivities: It has a swimming pool and movie stars, a spacious fitness center, several bars and restaurants affording sweeping views of downtown, and almost two dozen rooms with oversize beds to accommodate the visiting teams and their 7-footers.
Such is today’s NBA, though the late Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach would have had a coronary at the mere thought of making opponents comfortable.
But back to the Kings, a team coach Dave Joerger said “has miles and miles to go” even though it plays right down the street.
With Fox sharing the controls, the pace will accelerate, and if not a sprint, it won’t be a marathon, either. Fast is fun.