The world is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately place. We prey on small sample sizes and instant gratification, looking for the why. It’s not just the world of sports, but with readily available statistical data, a game like basketball lends itself to instantaneous analysis.
After a disastrous week that witnessed the Sacramento Kings lose five straight games, changes came Wednesday night in the form of lineup shuffling and the results were miraculous. The Kings looked like a team, not 11 or 12 individuals wearing matching outfits.
“I’m going to just be honest,” future Naismith Hall of Fame forward Kevin Garnett said following the Kings 107-86 win over the Brooklyn Nets. “That wasn’t the same Sac that we saw in the edits and the same Sac that you saw the last five games. They played with a lot of heart and passion. If they play like that every night, I don’t think their record would be what it is. That was a totally different team. Obviously they play better at home, but you can’t sit up here and tell me that was the same Sac team that was the last five games.”
The instant conclusion is that coach Michael Malone has found the right lineup of players. But the fact is, Malone used the same exact players, just in different combinations.
So why did it all work this time when it failed during the previous five games?
For starters, the Nets are not as advertised. This is supposed to be a championship-caliber team. Maybe it will be later in the season, but that is doubtful. The Nets looked old and slow and those two things don’t usually improve with time. The Kings are young and athletic. They pushed the tempo of the game and in the end, Brooklyn couldn’t keep up.
We could just write off this performance as a bad matchup and leave it there. It’s only one game and the Kings are still just 2-5.
But there is something that Garnett said in the quote above that sticks out: “They played with a lot of heart and passion.”
For Thornton, his shot finally started to fall. After a miserable start to the season, the 26-year old shooting guard went 10-for-19 from the field, scoring a season-high 24 points. He played with energy and for the first time this year, he looked comfortable on the court. On Wednesday night, he looked every bit the part of Vinnie Johnson, the player coach Malone has compared him to in the past.
Rookie Ben McLemore took over for Thornton and looked every bit the part of a 20-year old kid starting his first NBA game. He finished the night with two points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field. First game jitters are expected and that is why the presence of Thornton is so important.
Patterson still can’t find the range on his jumper, but low and behold, he figured out a different way to score in this game. While he only dropped in eight points, Patterson looked impressive in the two-man game with Greivis Vasquez. There was a stretch in the evening where Patterson was flying in for one dunk after another in the pick-and-roll. And although he missed the freebie, Patterson even went to the line for the first time this season. You can live with an eight-point, 10-rebound performance from P-Pat off the bench.
With Patterson becoming a reserve, Jason Thompson once again found himself in the starting lineup. It’s the story of this guy’s career. Everyone wants to replace him and in the end, he always wins back the starting job. At 6-foot-11 and 250-lbs., Thompson is big enough to guard the four or the five position. Against the Nets, he played mostly at the five on defense, drawing the talented Brook Lopez. Thompson held his own against a very good offensively-gifted big man.
Thompson finished the game with nine points and 11 rebounds. Similar to Patterson, he found a groove with Vasquez, but this time in the pick-and-pop. With the game still undecided and DeMarcus Cousins on the bench in foul trouble, Thompson started dropping in 18 footers from the top of the key.
For this Kings team to work, Malone needs Patterson and Thompson to have nights like this. The duo combined for 17 points and 21 rebounds, a far cry from the production the team received from them through the first six games.
It’s only one night out of 82, so don’t get too excited over a blowout win over the Nets. But the fact remains that the Kings looked better with the changes that Malone made. Be it losing a job, the feeling of vindication over winning a job or the excitement of getting your first NBA start, Sacramento was infused with energy from this group of players in their new roles. Now the trick is to come back with the same level of intensity for the next 75 games.