Just when you expect them to zig, the Sacramento Kings zag. Near the end of December, the Kings rattled off four straight wins, including huge victories against the Trail Blazers and Jazz on back-to-back nights. They looked like a team ready to make a serious run at a playoff spot.
But then they followed up that stretch with 10 losses in 12 chances, including a 1-6 homestand. Coach Dave Joerger pointed to the schedule. The players talked about staying together. Rudy Gay snapped his Achilles.
“When you’re at home, you want to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat, technically, and see if you can nick some of the teams that were supposed to beat you, and we didn’t do that,” Joerger told reporters in Cleveland.
The season began to take on very similar look to the last two. Decent starts. Chaos. Collapse.
This group seems different though. They played about as well as you can in a loss Saturday in Chicago and have a botched two-minute report to show for their efforts. A win in Detroit wasn’t expected and the 116-112 toppling of the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime Wednesday, despite the champs recent stumbles, couldn’t have been more shocking.
“I think we’re just growing from it,” DeMarcus Cousins told reporters following the win in Cleveland. “I think we’ve seen every type of mistake possible this season and I think we’re growing from it.”
There are times where Cousins has looked to win games on his own and it’s hurt the team. He struggled mightily in the first half against the Cavs, but scored 17 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Sacramento can’t live without Cousins’ scoring, especially with the loss of Gay and his 18.7 points per game. But he is developing into one of the game’s premier passing bigs, which was on full display in Cleveland.
Just days earlier, Cousins tried to force a move in the paint against the Bulls in the waning moments of the game. Chicago’s defense read the play and collapsed on Cousins. He turned the ball over, which led to a big bucket on the other end. Game over.
Faced with a similar situation Wednesday night, Cousins sensed the collapsing defense and showed faith in veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo. The Kings’ All-Star big hit Afflalo in rhythm for a game winning 3-pointer while picking up his ninth assist of the evening.
The talk of playoffs isn’t dead. Sacramento wasted plenty of opportunities so far this season, yet they still sit just a game and a half out of the eight seed with nearly half a season to play and a cosmic shift in the schedule just a week away.
“We’ve remained positive, we’ve remained together in this locker room and we’re still believing,” Cousins said.
What is different? Why have the Kings gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and back up again over a three week period? It’s a mystery to all involved.
“Nothing’s really changed from a week ago, we have good chemistry, guys like each other, the locker room’s fine, it has been fine, it’s not different today than it was a week ago,” Joerger said. “That’s what you love about our group, we’re trying build and be better on a nightly basis in some areas. Had we won or lost this game, this is three in a row that we've played very competitively.”
You can’t argue with Joerger on this front. His team competes every night. Losses to teams like Miami (twice), New York (twice) and Dallas hurt this team’s chances of snapping their decade-long playoff drought. But a win like the one in Cleveland help make up for at least one of those stumbles.
The Kings return to action against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night and then travel to Charlotte for a back-to-back in Saturday. When they finish out their season-long eight-game road trip on Tuesday in Houston, they will have played 28 road games on the season and just 21 home games.
Sacramento doesn’t leave the pacific time zone from the start of February through March 5. They play 11 of 13 at home and there are plenty of winnable games during that stretch. A good stretch at Golden 1 Center could go a long ways towards erasing the memory of the last homestand and propelling the team back into the chase for eight.