LOS ANGELES -- Every once in a while, a player comes along who seamlessly fits in and instantly improves a team. Veteran guard Kent Bazemore has been that player for the Kings.
Bazemore and experienced big man Anthony Tolliver officially joined Sacramento in a Jan. 21 trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, and Bazemore, 30, has been a catalyst for the Kings' recent surge. They are 8-5 since his arrival, clawing their way back into the playoff picture.
In the Kings' 112-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday afternoon, Bazemore scored 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He added six rebounds, four steals and played strong defense from the moment he stepped on the floor.
Bazemore also shoved coach Luke Walton after the Kings' win. Not only has he been a viable option off the bench, but his personality is helping to push the Kings’ culture in the right direction.
“You’ve got to relish these moments, you’ve got to bottle it up and really understand what it feels like and take it over to the next day,” Bazemore said Saturday. “It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to be a good team in this league and when you go on the road in big games like this, you’ve got to feel it.”
Walton has been a target in Sacramento after the Kings got off to a slow start. Like any coach, he wants to win and be part of the first Kings team to make the postseason since 2007.
Victories like the one over the Clippers shows that the team is still fighting for their coach despite the rocky start to the season.
“We here, we here -- we’re behind him 110 percent,” Bazemore said of Walton. “He’s just as fiery as any coach I’ve ever played with. Sometimes it looks like he wants to get out there, but he’s kinda chubby now, so those days are over.”
Walton feels the same way about Bazemore. The coach knows exactly how much Bazemore's addition has helped stabilize his club, both on and off the court.
“He’s been great -- the things he says in the locker room, his participation in film sessions, the energy and passion he plays the game with, his versatility,” Walton said when asked about Bazemore’s contributions.
What the Kings are seeing from Bazemore is what they were hoping to get when they signed Trevor Ariza during the offseason. While Ariza brought value to Sacramento, he didn’t have the same type of impact and he’s not nearly as versatile.
On any given night, Bazemore is asked to come off the bench and defend the best the opposition has to offer. Against the Clippers, he guarded Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams. Bazemore held his own against both, which was a big reason the Kings came away with a victory.
“He’s been huge, the way he’s been playing,” De'Aaron Fox said. “He’s been scoring the ball for us as well in situations, but defensively, he’s out there guarding Kawhi, he’s guarding Lou, he’s doing a lot of things.”
There was something missing from this team, and Bazemore might have been the missing ingredient. His intensity and professionalism are contagious. He also has a light-hearted side that his teammates seem to enjoy.
“It wasn’t much that needed to be changed,” Bazemore said. “But sometimes fresh blood does help and I hadn’t been having the best year, so I think it was a match made in heaven.”
With 26 games remaining, the Kings are getting to test drive Bazemore as a player and he is doing the same. A free agent at the end of the season, NBC Sports California has confirmed that the Kings have already had internal discussions about re-signing him, although there is plenty of time between now and July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
[RELATED: Kings' Harry Giles earns first double-double in road win vs. Clippers]
For now, the focus is on winning. The Kings entered Sunday five games out of the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, and they are playing very well coming out of the All-Star break.
“We’ve got 20 some odd games left and it’s a crapshoot right now,” Bazemore said. “Some teams are injured. It’s a sink or swim moment. You see it every year, some team gets hot and makes it interesting at the end. We have some lofty goals and we have the group to get it done.”
If Bazemore continues to play well and the Kings get a player or two back from injury, there is a chance they can make this season interesting down the stretch. It starts with wins like Sacramento's last two, and Bazemore was vital to both.