SACRAMENTO -- The Sacramento Kings fell behind by eight at the 6:23 mark of the first quarter and the tension inside of Golden 1 Center was palpable. A spattering of boos could be heard from a fanbase that had just watched their franchise cornerstone sent packing over the weekend. The worst fears seemed to be playing out.
And then Willie Cauley-Stein happened.
Head coach Dave Joerger summoned the second-year big man into the game and he responded with a dunk off a Ben McLemore pass. He followed that up with a put back slam and then a driving lay-up and then a 15-foot jumper. By the end of the first quarter, Cauley-Stein had poured in eight points on 4-of-4 shooting and Sacramento held a 29-26 lead.
“He didn’t feel us,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “We didn’t have great execution with our pick-and-roll defense. He got behind us. We weren’t covering the rim. It was easy for him.”
The lanky 7-footer has been waiting for his opportunity and with DeMarcus Cousins now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, he is getting his shot.
Cauley-Stein continued his strong play in the second quarter as the Kings pushed their lead as high as 20. In 15 minutes of action before the break, Cauley-Stein posted 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting. He finished the night with a career-high 29 points and chipped in 10 rebounds in the win, but he wasn’t the only Kings player to post big numbers.
Sacramento used a team effort to pull off a 116-100 shocking victory. Six players scored in double-figures, including rookie Buddy Hield and veteran Tyreke Evans who joined the Kings in the Cousins trade over the weekend.
“Everybody’s unselfish,” Hield said. “When you play unselfish, I feel like everything is possible. Guys aren’t worried about who’s getting the most shots up. It doesn’t matter in this group.”
The rookie out of Oklahoma turned heads in his first appearance in a Kings uniform, scoring 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He knocked down a 3-pointer and showed a pretty tear drop in the lane.
“Buddy is real confident, especially for a rookie,” point guard Darren Collison said. “He can shoot the ball really well. He can create a little bit off the pick-and-roll and he gets after it on defense too.”
Evans dropped in 15 points, grabbed four rebounds and handed out three assists off Dave Joerger’s bench. This is the second go-around in Sacramento for the former Rookie of the Year and there is a clear need for his ball-handling skills on the current version of the Kings.
In addition to Cauley-Stein, Hield and Evans, seldom used rookie Skal Labissiere put in a solid effort in his 14 minutes of action. The Haitian-born big man will likely play plenty of minutes down the stretch as the Kings adjust to their new, guard heavy roster.
Labissiere brought an energy and excitement to the game, scoring 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He was active, which the veterans in Sacramento have seen in practice sessions, but Labissiere hasn’t been given the chance in real game action until Thursday night.
“Skal has been working since he got here,” Collison said. “I’ve seen that kid work after the games, in the gym by himself, before practice, after practice, before games, after the games. So it’s good to see that work finally paying off for him.”
Collison added 15 points and 10 assists in 32 minutes. Ty Lawson chipped in eight points and six assists starting alongside Collison and Ben McLemore knocked down two 3-pointers on his way to 10 points.
It was a team effort for a group that has had very little time to gel together. The Kings’ second unit scored an incredible 72 points on the night, outscoring the Nuggets reserves by 28.
With the win, Sacramento moved to within a half game of Denver for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race. They head back to Golden 1 Center on Saturday afternoon for a 2pm start against the Charlotte Hornets who have lost 12 of their last 13 games, including an overtime stunner on Thursday against the Detroit Pistons.