SACRAMENTO -- Slow starts. Poor spacing. Intermittent defense. The 2016-17 Sacramento Kings are a major work in progress.
After falling behind by as many as 26 in the first half Friday night against the Clippers, the Kings awoke from their slumber to make a game of it. What was left of the 17,608 sellout crowd cheered their team on as DeMarcus Cousins, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, Garrett Temple and Matt Barnes found a way to claw within two points in the final minutes of the game, only to fade down the stretch for a 121-115 loss.
It’s an alarming trend. The Kings come out with a lackluster effort early. They fall behind big. They make a game out of it only to run out of gas.
“I don’t think we’re coming out with urgency,” Cousins said following the game. “Once again, we’re just waiting until the last minute to play with energy, play with a sense of urgency, play with some pride, play with some heart. I mean, it’s all fun, it’s exciting in the end – you feel like we’re playing good and making the right steps, but these games are only going to continue to get harder for us if we wait until the last quarter or I guess you could say second half to try to make a push. We’ve got to start having complete games.”
Be it the wrong mix of players on the floor, poor focus at shootaround or just a lack of effort early, changes are finally in store for the Kings’ starting lineup.
“I’ve seen enough, I’m going to play small” coach Dave Joerger said following the game. “DeMarcus is going to play center.”
“I don’t know who else is going to play with him, but it gives us more zip, more life, more experience,” Joerger said. “It’s not a detriment to anyone else and what they’ve done.”
Joerger has been reluctant to abandon a starting lineup that includes two centers. It’s not an indictment on the play of Kosta Koufos. He’s a big man that does the dirty work. But the sample size from both this season and last say that when Cousins and Koufos are on the floor together, the Kings struggle to space the floor.
Lawson has repeatedly made statements about having nowhere to go with the ball once he beats his man off the dribble. With a smaller lineup on the floor for much of the second half, Lawson had his best game of the season, posting 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting while dishing out eight assists and grabbing seven rebounds. He also turned the ball over just twice in 36 minutes of action and played strong defense on All-Star Chris Paul.
“I felt like myself today,” Lawson said. “I was able to get into the paint, especially in the second half. But still, we’ve got to start off early – we can’t get in a hole like that and play that well in the second half…battling uphill the whole game.”
The lineup change freed Lawson to break down the Clippers defense and find his teammates for open buckets. Two of Barnes’ three 3-pointers in the fourth came off a Lawson assist as he knifed through the lane. For the first time this season, he looked like the Ty Lawson that posted huge numbers for the Denver Nuggets just two seasons ago.
“It’s not a lot of fun I suppose, having a speed racing car going stop and go in the city,” Joerger said of Lawson. “He needs to be playing in space a little bit. I thought going small kind of did that, both Darren and Ty didn’t see so many people in front of them.”
Sacramento trailed 73-54 at the half, but Joerger inserted Collison for Koufos into the lineup following the intermission and the team instantly perked up. They had an up and down third quarter and trailed by 19 going to the fourth, but they built momentum.
The fourth was a whirlwind of action as the Kings pushed the tempo and nearly completed the comeback. But nearly doesn’t cut it.
Sacramento has lost four in a row and they now stand at 4-9 on the season. Mixing up the starting lineup might have the desired effect. But like Friday night’s loss to the Clippers, the Kings are digging a deep hole they may not be able to climb out of.
“Regardless of what lineup is out there, we’ve got to be ready to play,” Cousins said. “We can’t come out with excuses. If we don’t play with energy and urgency from the beginning, it doesn’t really matter what lineup is out there – we’re going to continue to have the same type of game.”
Cousins finished the game with big numbers, dropping in 38 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists three steals and a block in 37 minutes of action. Collison came off the bench to chip in 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and Barnes came up with a big 15-point, seven-rebound performance in the loss.
The Kings return to action Sunday when the Toronto Raptors come into Sacramento for game three of the team’s five game home stand. They'll need a strong showing to knock off DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the 8-4 team from the north.