After the ninth game of the season, we were able to close our eyes and begin to imagine what kind of team the Kings can become this year. They remain a work in progress, but you can see some form now that the components are in place. You can even say the journey is beginning to get interesting.
Tuesday night’s 102-94 victory came against the winless New Orleans Pelicans, so you never want to make too much of that. But it was the Kings’ third game in four days, with an international flight coming between a 1-4 trip and the win over the visitors from the Mississippi crescent. On the home front, the Kings welcomed the return of point guard Darren Collison from suspension and enjoyed the re-emergence of Willie Cauley-Stein, who hadn’t done much early in his second season.
The Kings are a team with few givens, positively speaking. One of them is the offensive production of DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 28 points against New Orleans. If the Kings can usually count on his scoring, how he gets his points is nothing to be taken for granted. Every night is a wrestling match for him. Against the Pelicans at Golden 1 Center, he took on the tag team of Omer Asik and Terrence Jones. A couple of times when the calls didn’t go Cousins’ way, it looked as if Mount Vesuvius was about to blow. It’s been known to happen in these parts, with lava spewing forth in the form of angry gesticulations and technical fouls on Cousins’ part. But against the Pelicans, Cousins maintained his composure, and the Kings their momentum.
Along with Cousins’ points, coach Dave Joerger has received a constant underlying effort by everybody he puts on the floor. Regarding Cauley-Stein’s frenetic 12 minutes and 25 seconds against the Pelicans, Joerger shared his expectation of everybody on the team. Speaking to reporters, Joerger repeated the mantra he has imparted and the team has accepted:
“Play your minutes hard, and do your job.”
Only a few days ago, it looked as if the Kings were going to finish their first trip of the season 0-5. They lost chances to win in Atlanta, Miami and Orlando before they got blown out in Milwaukee. On Sunday, they faced Toronto, the Atlantic Division leader.. Remarkably, they beat the Raptors 96-91, and if a team ever could feel good about a 1-4 trip, it was the Kings.
On Monday, their first day off at home in more than a week, Cousins, Rudy Gay, Matt Barnes and Garrett Temple spent their afternoon and early evening at a forum where young people met with cops. The idea during these times of strained relations between police agencies and African American communities, in Sacramento and nationwide, was to get the parties to communicate and empathize.
Tuesday’s game may have taken on an air of insignificance to some, with the country on knife’s edge over the wrenching presidential election results. After the game, a few Kings talked in passing about the election. But they are professionals, and this is their job, and they played hard, and now, like the rest of the country, they enter an unknown future.
They’ll enter it with a two-game winning streak and an infusion of energy from Collision. The NBA suspended the point guard for the first eight games after an offseason domestic battery incident to which he pleaded out to a misdemeanor. Collison said his teammates cheered him when he entered the locker room Tuesday. So did the fans when he entered the game with four minutes to go in the first quarter and injected some zing into the Kings’ often stagnant attack. Cousins calls him “Black Lightning.”
“I think we needed a little more pace,” Collison said.. He played just over 27 minutes and had nine points and four assists, and he lent fluidity to the reserves, who built leads for the starters and protected the ones handed to them.
A minute after Collison entered the game, Cauley-Stein subbed in for Cousins, and Collison found him streaking down the lane for a dunk. The play reminded fans that Cauley-Stein hadn’t gone anywhere after his promising rookie season. It only seemed like it when he didn’t play in two games on the trip. Before Tuesday’s game, he was averaging only 3.8 points and 1.2 rebounds. With Collison looking for him, he had nine and three.
Cauley-Stein’s main thing is energy.
“When I go in, I’m going blood,” he told reporters.
The Kings play six of their next seven games at home, including Thursday against the Lakers, with the Spurs, Clippers, Raptors, Thunder and Rockets to visit Golden 1 Center starting next week, after a game at Portland on Friday.
Maybe during the stretch of home games, Kings fans will find out whether this team is worth getting excited about.
The longer it remains a question, the better the chances that the answer will be one to their liking.