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Andy Furillo: Roller coaster season continues for Kings and George Karl

The inconsistency displayed throughout the season by the Sacramento Kings is a constant grind on coach George Karl, who has clear ideas about how he wants his teams to operate.
The inconsistency displayed throughout the season by the Sacramento Kings is a constant grind on coach George Karl, who has clear ideas about how he wants his teams to operate. hamezcua@sacbee.com

His team is playing .750 basketball for the 2016 calendar year – good enough to outperform the Chinese economy over the same stretch of schedule. But George Karl is going every bit as crazy these days as Xi Jinping .

While the president of China tries to figure out the right price for the yuan, the Kings coach is wondering what it’s going to take to get his backcourt to play better defense. The world economy hinges on whether China gets its deal right. In the world of the Kings, the eighth playoff position in the Western Conference hangs in the balance of their ability to defend the perimeter.

Saturday night’s crisis for the Kings will be hosting the Warriors, and the People’s Liberation Army would have trouble slowing down Golden State guards Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, even if Curry is day-to-day with a bruised left shin.

On Thursday night, the Kings were pummeling the Lakers by 27 points at home midway through the third quarter. Some 15 NBA minutes later, the Lakers took the lead, thanks to the backcourt shoot-’em-ups of Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell, who is starting to live up to his No. 2 overall selection in last year’s draft.

Sacramento pulled it out at the end, but Karl needed an early exit from his postgame news conference, presumably to search for his sanity.

“You know, the roller coaster of emotions of this game has got me a little worn out,” the coach said before departing.

The game took a similar toll on about 17,386 others at Sleep Train Arena, as has this season on Kings fans everywhere.

Their team came out of training camp refashioned with its best talent, depth and coaching in a decade. The optimism, however, gave way to a 1-7 start, marked by DeMarcus Cousins cussing out Karl after a Nov. 9 loss to San Antonio. Rajon Rondo was suspended for slurring a gay referee, and Cousins followed with a Dec. 28 ejection while the Kings led Golden State in Oakland. On Dec. 30 at home, the Kings lost to two-win Philadelphia – “the low point of the season,” Grant Napear told Kings TV viewers.

Kobe Bryant’s last game in Sacramento marked the story line of Thursday night’s 118-115 Kings win over the Lakers. The subplot was the bewildering nature of the Kings’ play. They came out on the attack. They dug in on D and whipped the ball around the court so proficiently you thought maybe they should hand out two assists on some baskets, as they do in hockey. But self-satisfaction subsumed them before the actual achievement of victory, which, against the Lakers, they nearly blew.

Karl says “getting better is a process,” and it has been a fitful one for the Kings. From the 1-7 start, they have improved into a playoff contender, evidenced by math that shows them out of a playoff spot by only a half-game entering Friday night. The coach just wishes they played every game with the urgency of a team climbing a precipice rather than one that acts as if it’s already standing on top of it, looking down.

Improvement, in Karl’s view, is not flicked on like a light switch. It’s about playing hard and hustling even when you’re way ahead as the Kings were against the Lakers.

“You should never think the game is easy,” Karl said after Thursday night’s survival. “It’s got to be earned every possession, every situation. And I think we just mentally shut down a little bit. Mentally, we get too cool. We get too pretty.”

Maybe it’s only January, but games in the dead of winter are just as important as the ones in spring’s rejuvenations, especially when you haven’t been to the playoffs since Metta World Peace played in Sacramento under the the name of Ron Artest, and that was 10 years ago.

These days, the star of the team is showing signs of having found a little bit of world peace himself, to go with his 25.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

You saw it in DeMarcus Cousins’ face when he bantered with fans in Oklahoma City and Dallas. In the past week or so, it appears he’s enjoying the game more while fighting it less. Smile has replaced scowl, and that Coke commercial where he throws a sweaty headband to the kid has become a smash, even if it is a ripoff of the Mean Joe Greene classic.

Cousins does good in the community. He paid for the funeral of murdered Grant High School football player Jaulon Clavo. He gave a family a car for Christmas.

He’s also getting along better with his coach, who on Friday told the “Dan Le Batard Show” on ESPN Radio how his relationship with Cousins has improved since the early-season cuss out.

“Right now, I think it’s in a good place,” Karl said on the show.

Karl also lauded Cousins for growing into a leadership role, stepping up “in a very positive way” to preempt the coach in the delivery of postgame remarks to the team after the near disaster against the Lakers.

Now Golden State comes to town, capping a week in which the Kings gained respect with a road victory at Oklahoma City and confidence despite a road loss in Dallas – before coming away a bit shaken after the win at home against the Lakers.

“We’ll see where we at,” Rondo said.

This minute, anyway.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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