SACRAMENTO -- Faced with demotion, you have two options, sulk or come out swinging. Willie Cauley-Stein chose option two Friday evening at Golden 1 Center.
After starting all 14 games to begin the season, Cauley-Stein found himself relegated to the second unit against the Portland Trail Blazers. The 7-footer looked energized by the move and made one play after another as the Kings came away with the 86-82 victory.
“I felt free - period,” Cauley-Stein said following the win. “Both offensively, defensively. I’m quarterbacking on defense. I’m getting to make plays on offense. I just feel liberated. I feel like it’s unlocking.”
The third-year big began the 2017-18 campaign with back-to-back double-doubles, but hadn’t notched double-figures in rebounds since. Over his previous eight games, the Kings’ starting center was averaging just 4.3 boards per game.
Against Portland, Cauley-Stein played sparkling defense, hit 9-of-17 from the floor for a team-high 22 points and hit the glass for 10 boards. He skied above the Blazers bigs for a rebound with 3.4 seconds remaining and his second free throw attempt sealed the win for a Kings team in desperate need of a win.
“Willie’s a hell of a player, obviously,” veteran big Kosta Koufos said. “He’s really athletic, he’s a special talent.”
Koufos and Cauley-Stein made a devastating defensive duo for Sacramento. Both bigs showed on the high pick-and-roll and avoided fouling the Blazers high-powered guards.
“That’s a crazy defensive lineup right there, me and Kosta play really well together,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been waiting for that lineup since we started.”
Damian Lillard scored 29 points, but he shot just 9-of-25 from the field and 5-for-14 from long range. C.J. McCollum knocked down 8-of-15 from the floor, but he missed all four of his 3-point attempts as Sacramento closed out and pressured the shooter all night long.
Cauley-Stein wasn’t the only starter to find himself on the bench to start the game. Dave Joerger turned to a dual point guard backcourt, using De’Aaron Fox and George Hill side-by-side, while bringing rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic in with the second unit.
Playing off the ball for long stretches, Hill responded to the move with 14 points and five assists in 27 minutes. Fox had a quiet offensive night, but his defense on both Lillard and McCollum was inspired.
“We can both attack and he’s a great shooter so that really helps me,” Fox said of Hill. “He’s a mentor on the court. It’s a lot easier to play with him then to watch him play.”
Sacramento held Portland to just 37 percent shooting overall and 28 percent from behind the arc. They pressured the Blazers in the backcourt and slowed the game to screeching halt.
With the win, the Kings snapped their three-game losing streak and improved to 4-11 on the season. They jumped a plane for Portland following the game where they’ll face the same Trail Blazer team Saturday in a rare back-to-back against the same team.
The Kings likely be without the services of shooting guard Buddy Hield, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained right ankle. Hield limped into the locker room on crutches following the victory and the initial indications point to him missing the rematch.
SACRAMENTO -- Coming off one of the worst performances in franchise history, the Kings return to Golden 1 Center to host the Portland Trail Blazers in the first game of a home-and-home on back-to-back nights. They’ll try to get their offense flowing against a quality Portland team with a pair of star guards.
Sacramento’s 46-point loss to the lowly Hawks set a new low point in the season. The Kings lacked effort and intensity against an Atlanta team that came into the game at just 2-11 on the season. They’ll need a better effort against the Blazers or the outcome could get worse.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum anchor a quality Portland team, but big man Jusuf Nurkic is the straw that stirs the Blazers drink. He can pound you inside, find the open man and block shots at will. Willie Cauley-Stein and the Kings frontline will have their hands full with Portland’s versatile and physical center.
Blazers by 7
Garrett Temple vs. C.J. McCollum -- Damian Lillard gets all the publicity, but McCollum is a star in his own right. Sacramento passed on the sharpshooter during the 2013 NBA Draft, choosing Ben McLemore instead. It was a huge mistake as McCollum developed into one of the premier shooters in the league. Barring a major change in the lineup, Temple gets the start at the two. He’ll have his hands full with a player averaging 22.5 points per game on league-best 53.1 percent shooting from long range.
WHERE THEY STAND
Kings: 3-11, fifth place in Pacific
Trail Blazers: 8-6, second place in Northwest
Kings: F Vince Carter (kidney stones) out, PF Harry Giles (bilateral knee rehab) out until January.
Trail Blazers: F Al Farouq Aminu (ankle) out, C Meyers Leonard (ankle) questionable, G C.J. Wilcox (knee) out, PG Wade Baldwin (thumb) out.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
PRIDE -- After losing three straight on the road by a combined 91 points, the Sacramento Kings have to show some pride on their home court. They aren’t as talented or experienced as the Blazers, but losing by 46 points is completely unacceptable by any standard.
CHANGING THE LINEUP -- The current starting five of Hill, Temple, Bogdanovic, Randolph and Cauley-Stein isn’t working. This group has fallen behind in almost every game they’ve been on the floor together and at some point, Joerger has to make move. Who starts and who sits is always up for debate, but the time for running the same five out there and expecting something different is long gone.
TOO NICE -- During their current losing streak the Kings roster has almost been congenial to their opponents. Nurkic is a player that has no problem sending a high elbow to the nose of his opponent and that’s the way the game should be played. It’s time for the Mr. Nice Guy act to go away and for the Kings players to show they can hang when the game gets physical.
Portland won the season series 2-1 last year, which each team holding home court. The Blazers lead the all-time series 129-77 and they own the Kings during the Sacramento-era 88-46.
“It’s not just going to happen over night. As long as we all keep working, which we’ve been doing. We’ve had some really good practices, coaching has been really good. It’s going to take time, that’s what it is right now.” -Skal Labissiere on the team’s current struggles