Who knew life would be so hard for the Sacramento Kings without center DeMarcus Cousins?
After dropping their third straight contest Wednesday in Phoenix, the Kings are already reeling. The defense is a mess and the offense is worse. Cousins’ absence on both ends of the court is glaring and if and when he returns later this week, the competition only intensifies.
“When you’ve got a hole without Cuz and trying to learn your new personality early in the season against a really good basketball team, right now we’re playing as a very average defensive team and offensively we’re searching for some confidence: missing some layups, missing some easy shots, missing some free throws,” coach George Karl told media after the loss. “You’ve just got to stay the course and stay together and figure out little pieces here and there against a tough, tough schedule.”
The Kings caught fire early in the third quarter, tying the game at 55-55 at the 7:43 mark, but then they fell apart. Brandon Knight torched the Kings with 17 second half points, including three 3-pointers. Big man Alex Len dominated the paint, scoring 14 points and grabbing five rebounds after the intermission.
“We made a run but they came out of a timeout and made some shots and we got stuck: team defense in general,” veteran point guard Rajon Rondo said. “Hopefully there are some things we can do.”
Phoenix finished the night on a 63-42 run. Sacramento looked disinterested and confused on the defensive end.
“We didn’t have enough energy or defense to figure out how to win the game,” Karl said. “Defensively, right after that, we fell apart. Some of them, they made tough shots but we lost our concentration and right now we’ve got to focus on the defensive end of the court and see if we can get a little better.”
Sacramento allowed the game to get out of hand. Phoenix shot 60 percent in the second half and 65 percent in the fourth quarter. The Suns got hot, but the Kings gave very little resistance.
“We have to watch film and see what we can learn from it,” Rondo said. “Maybe it’s pick and roll, maybe it’s individual defense one on one, it’s pretty much everything right now. We have to get it right, we don’t have a choice. We have to continue to fight and we have to trust one another, we have to trust the system and get some wins.”
Maybe the film will show an easy adjustment, maybe it won’t. With so little practice time built into the regular season, the Kings will have to improve on the fly or face more embarrassing losses.
“It’s early in the season and we have to make some changes right now, take some responsibility for our own actions and continue to push forward,” big man Kosta Koufos said. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team and we’re confident, we’re going to continue to build and push forward.”
If a 1-4 record wasn’t bad enough, the Kings face back-to-back games against the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors Friday and Saturday night, followed by a visit from the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. A 1-7 start is a legitimate concern.
A group of the Kings new additions are off to a slow start early in the season. Marco Belinelli came into Wednesday’s contest averaging 9.5 points per game on 27.8 percent shooting from the field. The veteran wing dropped in 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting and knocked down a pair of three pointers against the Suns.
Karl has pointed to Belinelli as his key bench scorer, especially with guard Darren Collison joining the starting unit. Getting the veteran back on track is a high priority for the Kings.
James Anderson went from riding the pine to starter overnight. After spending a season away from the NBA playing basketball in Lithuania, the 6-foot-5 wing came out firing but not hitting. He went just 1-of-8 from the field in the first half, but his aggressive mindset was a welcomed sight.
In the second half, Anderson caught fire, knocking down four three pointers and finishing the night with 15 points. Karl has referred to Anderson as his best perimeter defender. If he can bring long range shooting to the mix, he may have stolen away substantial minutes in the rotation.
There aren’t a lot of silver linings in a 118-97 loss, but with Cousins missing time, the Kings may have gotten a few pieces going. An increase in opportunity may be just what the doctor ordered for Belinelli and Anderson.
The Kings have developed a nasty case of the yips from the free throw line. Coming into Wednesday’s contest, the team was shooting an abysmal 65.5 percent from the charity stripe and then it got worse.
Sacramento couldn’t find their stroke in the first half, shooting 6-for-12 from the line. And in the second half, they failed to attempt a single free throw.
One of the basic tenets to their offense is to attack the basket with the dribble drive, which should lead to a bevy of free throw attempts. Last season the Kings ranked first in free throw attempts and makes and ranked 10th in percentage.
In the second half against Phoenix they looked passive and settled for perimeter jumpers. Clearly this is an anomaly, but one that cost them a chance to compete in a game.
Sacramento looks lost without Cousins and the NBA schedule isn’t doing this team any favors. It’s early in the season. It’s not time to break glass and pull the fire alarm, even if the Kings drop the next three games and fall to 1-7 on the season.
Karl has preached defense leading to good offense and losing Cousins is key on both ends of the floor. Not only has the All-Star big transformed himself into an above average defender, but his ability to take a dribble or two after a defensive rebound and initiate transition opens up the entire offense.
Neither Koufos nor Willie Cauley-Stein possess this trait. It’s not a knock on either player, it’s a reality.
Patience is required when you add nine new players to a roster. A key injury hasn’t helped things one bit. Keep in mind that the Eastern Conference portion of the schedule is coming soon and the Kings will have an opportunity to erase a rough start.