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Kings shoot hole in ESPN roster rankings

Sacramento Kings get first victory at home vs Minnesota Timberwolves

Sacramento Kings Dave Joerger impressed with the way team battled in the second half to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.
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Sacramento Kings Dave Joerger impressed with the way team battled in the second half to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.

For Halloween this year, the Kings are going to dress up in Atlanta as a winning team. There’s really nothing scary about that. But if they come home from Toronto next week still wearing the costume of winners, it might be enough to scare up a reassessment among some of the knuckleheads in the national sports punditry.

It’s already been established that this is a team that’s going to fight you across 48 minutes, whether you’re in the exalted class of the San Antonio Spurs or a team of the very near future like the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Kings have shown they can win in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Now they’re going to places where they’ll be giving up three hours, and they’ll be sleeping in hotels, and with all the distractions young men face in places far from home, you can only hope that they’ll keep up on their rest.

The Kings packed a 2-1 record on their Sunday morning flight out of SMF. After they test it in Georgia, it’ll be off to Miami, Orlando, Milwaukee and Toronto. They’ll play five games in seven days, after which more evidence will have been accumulated on what we’re working with here. Is this really the worst roster in professional sports, as ESPN has stupidly asserted? Or is it a collection of varied ingredients that is still fairly early in the process of being sorted and mixed.

ESPN, man – like, why do you have to put everything on a list? Doesn’t ESPN know there’s more to the world than linear? And how do you compare a list of 12 basketball players to a list of 53 football players? Or 20 hockey players? How do you compare sneakers to cleats to skates and hardwood to fake or real grass or ice.

At least with college football rankings, you get a true gathering of collective intelligence taken from the points of view of different agencies and different institutions. The ESPN rankings are derived from in-breeding, among all those clever suits that never sweat.

OK, so the Kings don’t have a roster like the ’27 Yankees. But you don’t need a Murderers Row to win. You can’t knock Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but you can also beat a better team with Al Weis and Ron Swoboda, as the ’69 Mets did in the World Series against the Frank and Brooks Robinson Orioles. Play hard, commit to defense and who knows?

The Kings still tend to relapse into isolationism on offense, which is always a dubious policy, both in international affairs and in trying to put the ball in the hoop. Management in Sacramento recognizes the problem and has tried to rectify it with Matt Barnes. An organizer on defense, he also finds a way on offense get the ball to the right guy in the right spot. He had nine assists Saturday night, two below his career high, in the 106-103 victory over the Timberwolves at Golden 1 Center, with most of his deliveries assisting DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay.

Heading to Atlanta, Kings vice president of basketball operations and general manager Vlade Divac kind of likes the roster he has fashioned, despite what the geniuses at ESPN say.

“It’s a good group of guys,” Divac said. “They care about each other. They play together. They have fun.”

You could see it a little bit in the banter that unfolded in the locker room after Saturday night’s win. Ty Lawson, Ben McLemore, Kosta Koufos and Rudy Gay participated in a good-natured exchange over how Rudy’s skin lotion wound up in Ty’s locker and whether it would ever make it back to its rightful owner. Yeah, it was just a dumb little thing. But it was a dumb little thing you didn’t see a whole lot of in the Kings’ locker room last year.

Coach Dave Joerger also exhibited an element of playfulness after the Minnesota win. In his postgame news conference, while discussing Gay’s contribution to the victory, he noticed an opening in the back of the room and told a reporter, “Your fly is down.”

Joerger also noticed that in a crucial stretch in the third period, when the Kings outscored the Timberwolves 24-1, his club stopped Minnesota from scoring on numerous consecutive possessions. In the first half, his guys watched the T-wolves score 65 points, including 17 by Andrew Wiggins, whose flaps were up. Gay paid close attention to the high-flying Wiggins in the third quarter and brought him down to four points. Gay also stole the ball from him once and forced him into a travel with tight defense on the dribble.

“In that third quarter, when we really put our foot down, we became the team that we practiced,” Gay said.

Over 82 games, one quarter may not mean that much. Or one game. But for now, it’s the difference between being a winning and a losing team, and whether it’s only three games or three hundred, it has to mean something, especially for a franchise that has played trick or treat the last 10 years as a loser.

“I think there’s a nice difference between being 2-1 and 1-2 and how you feel about yourself knowing you’re going to play the next five in all kinds of different states around the union,” Joerger said. “I think that’s a better feeling, getting on the plane.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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