Playing in the high-altitude of the Rocky Mountains on the second night of a back-to-back, the Sacramento Kings looked anything but fatigued. Instead, they were constantly on the attack, both defensively and offensively, poking and prodding the Denver Nuggets throughout the night.
Sacramento was led by Isaiah Thomas, who, unsurprisingly, had plenty of energy as well. Sunday night, Thomas put together a second consecutive standout outing, setting the tone for his team and playing a key role in its 109-95 win over Denver.
The tiny point guard has a seemingly bottomless fuel tank, which he paired with a skillful offensive performance Sunday. In addition to leading the fastbreak and initiating the offense, Thomas hit a number of pull up threes – many of which came during a big third quarter run that secured the victory – and attacked the basket. He finished with a game-high 33 points along with 6 assists.
Thomas, though, was simply one-third of a three-pronged offensive attack that proved far too overwhelming for the Nuggets. Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins also left a large mark on the game. The three of them combined for 92 points on 32-55 shooting.
Cousins, as he has in past meetings with Denver, outmatched his opponents in the paint, drawing fouls when his presence became too much to handle.
Once Gay got into a rhythm, he was difficult to stop. He attacked the rim throughout the game and even posted up a few times to great success. Gay said he looked to other parts of his game to get going after a slow start.
“I’ve been in somewhat of a slump lately. Just taking it back to the basics,” said Gay, who tallied 32 points and 11 rebounds. “Doing some things and just trusting my game. I have to get back to what I was doing when I first got here.”
The Kings’ offense wasn’t completely smooth going, however, though the scoring from their top three managed to offset mistakes. As was the case Saturday against the Boston Celtics, they were careless with the ball, turning it over 21 times, which the Nuggets turned into 21 points.
The mental missteps nearly sunk the Kings Saturday and may have Sunday, if not for the enormous outings from Thomas, Gay and Cousins. Still, Michael Malone knows it’s something his team needs to work on.
“We watch a lot of film and we talk about it,” he said. “No one’s trying to turn the ball over, but we just have to have a much higher awareness and value the ball at a much higher level.”
Sacramento’s defense also helped make up for its slip ups with the basketball. Aside from a pair of 27-point nights from Evan Fournier and Randy Foye – both of whom were left perplexingly open at times – the Kings stifled the Nuggets.
When Fournier and Foye weren’t draining perimeter shots, the Kings’ defensive rotations were strong and their interior defense presented a surprising obstacle for the Nuggets. Sacramento ranked 25th in the league in blocks per game entering Sunday, but had 10 against Denver. Ben McLemore even got in on the action, rejecting Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov at the rim.
The Kings’ defensive presence in the paint helped hold the Nuggets to 37.5 percent shooting, the second straight night they’ve held an opponent to less than 40 percent from the field.
“We were active, making people feel us. We were protecting our basket, not just conceding layups, which we’ve done this year,” Malone said. “To be a good, physical defensive team, you have to have a physical mindset and make people feel you out there. I think we’ve done that lately, especially in that third quarter – that set the tone.”
Wins have been hard to come by for Sacramento this season, and Sunday’s was especially rare. Malone said it was just the ninth time a team has won the second night of a back-to-back in Denver in five years. It was the first time the Kings have swept a back-to-back, with the second night being in the Mile High City, since 2002.
The ability to replicate Saturday’s winning performance, in which ample good outweighed some bad, only added to the sweetness of Sunday’s victory. It also gave the Kings a blueprint for what consistency looks like and the results it produces.
“If we want to be really good in this league, we have to be more consistent,” Gay said. “We have to come out every night and give it our all and try to do the best for this team.”