Michael Malone admitted it sounded crazy, but he thought his team was close. Despite ranking at or near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories, Malone said before Monday’s game that he thought the Sacramento Kings were on the verge of becoming a good defensive team.
He may have been right, but perhaps didn’t know how close they were.
Against the Chicago Bulls Monday, the Kings turned in their best defensive performance of the season, holding their opponent to just 28.2 percent shooting in a 99-70 win.
Sacramento was aided, in part, by Chicago’s inability to knock down shots; the Bulls got plenty of open looks, but the basket seemed like it had a lid on it. (At one point Kirk Hinrich was scoreless on six three-point attempts, most of which were open catch-and-shoot opportunities.)
The Bulls’ 28.2 percent shooting from the field was the lowest in the Sacramento era of the franchise and Malone was pleased with his team’s prolific outing.
“That’s how we have to play. It’s a broken record; we talk about it all the time. In our 16 wins, we’ve defended at a high level and tonight, obviously, holding that team to 70 points and 28 percent from the field was tremendous,” Malone said. “I thought we had five guys defending as one most of the night, covering for each other.”
Typical of the Bulls’ style, much of the game was slow and low scoring and physical play was the norm. Eventually, though, the chippiness boiled over and both teams aired their grievances.
Three technical fouls were assessed in the first five minutes of the third quarter alone, a sequence that culminated in Joakim Noah’s explosive ejection. A couple minutes prior, Noah earned a technical for arguing a no-call with a referee and when he was given his second one, he had to be dragged off the court as he pointed and shouted at each referee in a rage and profanity-filled outburst.
Both teams traded fouls that the other took exception to as the quarter went on before tempers eventually cooled and the Kings pulled away.
“It happens. At the end of the day we’re all humans, we have do have emotions. (Noah) was frustrated – we all get frustrated – and he spoke his mind,” said Cousins, who received a technical foul himself. “It was a chippy game, it was a physical game, but we did a great job of keeping our composure in those moments and came out with a big win.”
While Cousins momentarily lost his composure in the third quarter fray, he was in control for the rest of the game.
Beforehand, Malone said he thought Cousins might experience some rust after missing seven games, but in his return Cousins didn’t seem to miss a beat. He came out of the gate immediately on the attack, driving to the basket against Noah and drawing fouls, and put up 11 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter.
He slowed in the next quarter – fatigue looked to be a factor – but picked it up in the second half, finishing with 25 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
“Honestly, I shouldn’t have been playing tonight, but I’m not the type of guy to let nagging injuries hold me back,” Cousins said. “I got through the game, I got through the stiffness. There’s still some light swelling and there’s going to be some swelling after this as well, but I got through the hard part, so now it’s just building the strength up.”
In the shadow of Cousins’ dominant performance, Isaiah Thomas corrected some mistakes he made when his teammates were out.
Saturday, against the San Antonio Spurs, Thomas shot 11-26 in an attempt to help carry the offensive load. Monday, though, he focused on his shot selection and scored 19 points on 7-9 shooting.
Malone said he spoke with Thomas about his offensive approach now that Cousins has returned.
“(Thomas) said that his arm was hurting and I joked with him, ‘I think it’s because you’re shooting too much.’ We talked about good shots, bad shots, time, score, situation, making plays for your teammates,” Malone said. “I thought he played a very heady game, a very efficient game and with DeMarcus back, there’s no need for him to take 20-something shots.”
Monday’s win snapped the Kings seven-game losing streak that stretched back to Cousins and Gay’s injuries in Houston.
The Kings will have a chance to start an upward trend when they face the Toronto Raptors Wednesday, but Malone didn’t make any further predictions.