Saturday, Michael Malone challenged his team to bank on staunch defense rather than a potent offense, which can be unreliable, he said.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans (23-37) Monday, the Sacramento Kings (21-39) experienced such a scoring drought as Malone prophesized. But unlike their last three games, in which the Kings allowed 121 points a night, they ramped up their performance on the defensive end.
Aside from Tyreke Evans, who nearly registered a triple-double with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists, offense was hard to come by for New Orleans. Sacramento held its opponent to 42.7 percent shooting and came away with a 96-89 win, ending their three-game slide.
Before the game’s pace significantly increased late in the third and through the fourth, the Kings struggled to establish any offensive rhythm, but a strong defensive performance kept the game within reach, something Malone hopes will stick.
“It looked like it was going to be a 70-65 game for a little while, but even though we were struggling on offense and turned the ball over, the fact that we were able to limit them and hold them below 37 percent in the first half … allows us to weather those offensive struggles that we have at times,” Malone said. “That’s the thing in the NBA: if defense is your anchor and you can lean on that every night, you’ll be in a lot of games, and that’s who we need to be.”
Throughout the first half, DeMarcus Cousins was the Kings’ sole source of reliable offensive production—he finished with 23 points and 16 free-throw attempts—but he picked up three first-half fouls and a fourth with nine minutes left in the third quarter. Cousins’ foul trouble, which took him out of the game, stunted any progress Sacramento was making and the game slowed to a crawl for a long stretch of the third quarter
Without their star center, the rest of the Kings were forced to either step up and contribute or fold and concede the game. The outcome was in the balance and Malone gave it a nudge in his team’s direction when he subbed in Quincy Acy, Reggie Evans, and Ray McCallum with about four minutes left in the third.
The trio was largely responsible for leading the Kings’ comeback effort against the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday (which ultimately fell four points short), and they replicated that energy Monday. Evans and McCallum, in particular, played crucial roles in sparking Sacramento late, bringing energy to a game and team that had both hit lulls.
Their play off the bench—McCallum finished with eight points and Evans tallied 10 points and 13 rebounds—supplemented Isaiah Thomas’ late-game surge that propelled the Kings to a lead and eventual victory. Thomas scored 18 points in the second half.
When Sacramento traded for Evans and Jason Terry at the deadline, it was seemingly a financial decision, but in just five games Evans’ tenacious style of play has made a noticeable impression, setting an example for a young team.
“That’s the main thing. Not just on game day, practice also; just how you approach practice, how you approach film session. Those are the main things, just on an everyday basis. Respecting the game of basketball,” Evans said. “It’ll go by so quick, before you know it you’ll be done playing, and you want to just look back at it knowing you played so hard and gave it everything you had.”
The Kings have had a knack of finishing home stands on a high note before leaving on road trips, but haven’t been able to translate that success: they have only won eight games on the road.
Now, after Monday’s win, Sacramento takes off for a seven-game road swing and will see if it can break that habit.