There are two ways to take the way the Kings played this weekend:
1) The Kings played hard fought basketball and showed they aren’t a team to overlook.
2) Their opponents only played as hard as they deemed necessary to beat a less talented, undermanned Kings team.
Or maybe it can be both. Did the Celtics ease up on the Kings? Did the Cavaliers bust their tails to the fullest of their capabilities? I don’t think anybody who watched those two games can confidently say that the Cavs and Celtics tried their hardest for 48 minutes in each respective game. At the same time, the Kings made their opponents put games away later instead of earlier when everyone thought these contests would be decided.
That has to count for something, right?
Clearly, this team is different without Tyreke Evans. There are plenty of good players to try and fill the void left from one of the most historically impressive rookies that has graced this league in its 63 years of existence. The defensive effort from Donté Greene, Ime Udoka, and Dominic McGuire tries to protect the perimeter. Carl Landry becomes a capable go-to scorer and Beno Udrih becomes a master floor general. Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes get more active inside and Omri Casspi and Andres Nocioni try to provide a little extra punch. But there is no focal point to hone in on for the opposing defense, which is a blessing and a curse.
In theory, if everybody is a threat on the floor at all times in a free-flowing offense based on trust and execution then you should be a highly dangerous team. However, that’s just a theory. Application of that proves to be so much more difficult. You need a dominant force at some point. You need a guy who gets a certain look in his eye and causes the defense to think, “Oh crap, I hope I don’t have to guard that guy.” Tyreke Evans is that guy. He’s going to be that guy for the next 15 years. And when you have that guy, you can go through stretches in which your teammates are picking their spots, conserving their energy and climbing aboard the Tyreke Evans locomotive. This idea of offense seems to work a lot more throughout NBA history. A singular man breaking the will of five can be a much harder thing to deal with psychologically.
If you can’t stop one guy then you certainly can’t stop four other guys around that main guy. The problem often for such a young team is figuring out the balance of when to go all five and when to ride the star.
In these two games, the Kings didn’t have that luxury. They had to endure as a five-headed entity at all times. And doing that against a five-headed entity with more talent, experience and success with you is hard to do. And when your five-headed entity is getting smacked all over the floor like what happened in the game against Boston, that’s a tough thing to come back from.
The Celtics hit the Kings with a dose that would make most teams want to let the clock run down as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next game. After the first half, the Celtics were cruising with a 57-37 lead. Paul Pierce was a handful, Rajon Rondo was dissecting the Kings defense and Ray Allen was coming off of screens and burying every jumper he took. Last year’s Kings team (which looks an awful lot like this year’s team when Reke isn’t around) would have probably rolled over and not put up much of a fight.
This year’s Kings team didn’t do that. The Kings didn’t let the lead get THAT much more outrageous throughout most of the third quarter and when the Celtics started clearing their bench at the end of the third, the Kings made a run to start making things respectable. The Kings defense was taking advantage of a lackadaisical Celtics offense and just outworked them. Beno lit up the Celtics for 11 of his 16 points in the third and the Kings cut the lead to 13 going into the fourth.
In the fourth quarter, the Kings got the lead down to six a couple of times but eventually gave way to the better team. They hung with one of the better teams in the league by continuing to work through the frustration. Carl Landry finished with 30 points and eight rebounds. He was extremely aggressive the entire game. He was 10/16 shooting from the field and five of those misses were blocked. He got to the free throw line 12 times and made 10. Even though KG and Rasheed Wallace did a good job of protecting the paint, Landry made his presence felt.
Against the Cavaliers, they didn’t face the same defensive resistance right away. The Cavs took advantage of sloppy play by the Kings early but never really seemed interested in keeping up any consistent defensive intensity. When the Kings weren’t giving the ball away, they were getting basically any shot they wanted. Beno orchestrated the Kings offense beautifully once again. He found JT and Landry inside and Nocioni on the perimeter.
Beno finished the game with a triple double and carved up the Cavaliers’ backcourt the entire game. We all probably could surmise that Mo Williams wouldn’t be able to guard anybody but Beno was able to get by and get his shot against Delonte West too. Delonte is one of the better defensive guards in the NBA and he seemingly had no chance to check Beno.
The Kings were extremely short-handed in this game without Tyreke, Spencer, Sean May, Jon Brockman and Francisco Garcia. Then four minutes into the game the team lost Dominic McGuire to a foot injury when the Cavs were building a double-digit lead. Sometimes when your team is short-handed, you have to resort to a different style or strategic adjustment and hope it works for the entire game. The Kings did that mostly by switching to a zone defense that kept the Cavs out of the paint.
Problem was LeBron James has a lot of talent. He simply made shots when he had to. He conjured up some fabricated swagger with a flu-ridden Omri Casspi guarding him in the fourth quarter, took questionable jumpers and flat-out made them. It was cool of LeBron to posture for the cameras, crowd and teammates after making them. After all, that’s what you do when you’re going to win 60 games in a season and have failed to put away a 23-win team who is missing their best player and two other cemented rotation guys.
Overall, the Kings did the best you could hope for this weekend. They competed. Did they compete against teams that tried their hardest? No, I don’t think they did. But at a certain point in the closing moments of each game, they made two of the best teams in the NBA step up their game. They forced their opponents to put them away or fear the embarrassment of losing at home to a poor road team. Landry proved to be aggressive and a force. Nocioni made his opponents respect his outside shot. Omri Casspi finally found his shooting touch. Jason Thompson regained a lot of the production we saw from him early in the season. And Beno Udrih carved up his opponents like Beatrix Kiddo.
Two losses were added to the column you don’t want to add numbers to but at the same time, they were losses that helped this team grow and add to the rebuilding process.