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The new-look Kings took the hardwood on Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns for the first exhibition game of the year and came away with a 109-95 victory against their Western Conference rivals.
It was a time to let Head Coach Paul Westphal see how the younger guys have improved and give him a chance to figure out who will be on his final roster.
For the fans, it was a time to have renewed enthusiasm. A time to see the future. A time for hope once again.
For the players, it was and a chance to bang on someone else besides each other. For the training camp hopefuls who wandered into town a few weeks ago, it was a chance to prove they belong.
And at the end of the day, most everyone seemed to have their wish fulfilled.
The Kings started out a little sluggish as the big men of the Suns were able to get to the rim way too easily. Sacramento was not rotating in time, and it led to several open drives to the basket for Phoenix.
Suns guard/forward Jason Richardson looked early on like he was going the be the Kings killer this game. Richardson, who’s in his 10th season and was the only Suns projected opening-day starter to get significant playing time besides center Robin Lopez, had a nice three and was the leading scorer for the Suns with 4:32 left in the first quarter with six points. No one was stopping Richardson’s drives to the middle or guarding him out on the three-point arc. Lucky for the Kings, Richardson only made one of his five three-point attempts.
The Kings, on the other hand, were getting support from an unlikely candidate – surprising starter Marcus Landry. Landry, who finished with 11 points, two rebounds and was three of five from the three-point line, provided some early offense and the defensive stability that the Kings have been searching for.
Westphal said he was impressed. Considering that Landry has led the team in rebounding and charges drawn since the beginning of training camp, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Westphal is starting to have a soft spot for the younger Landry.
With that said, Marcus Landry is flat-out a solid basketball player. The things that Landry can offer are what the Kings sorely need: stability, effort and basketball smarts. He can even nail the open three. Westpahl said that you can be assured that is not a case of nepotism. The kid can play and was part of the reason the Kings didn’t get run off the floor early in the game.
Carl Landry was able to have one of his dreams come true: playing alongside his little brother in an NBA setting.
“It felt really good, and I’m real proud of him,” Carl said. “He had a really good game. He was trying to push me, as I’m still struggling a little bit. To have your brother out there with you – that’s amazing!”
Tyreke Evans was showing off his new shooting form and ended up making nine of 17 shots and had scored 26 points by game’s end. Evans also made two of three from long range. The offseason work he’s put in is starting to show, and if he can stay with it, the fans will be seeing some huge scoring nights from him.
Despite the efforts of Omri Casspi and Pooh Jeter off the bench, the Kings trailed 31-26 after the first quarter. That was a little scary considering that two of the Suns starters – Steve Nash and Grant Hill – were pulled after playing just under six minutes and the Kings were treating it like more of a regular season outing, as the starters ended up logging significant minutes.
Things got a littler dicier when the Suns opened the second quarter with a 5-0 run to bring the score to 36-26 with 10:54 left in the half. If it wasn’t for rookie sensation DeMarcus Cousins, Casspi and Jeter stepping up the defense, things would have been worse.
Somewhat reminiscent of Sunday’s open practice, Donte Greene didn’t make an appearance until there was 6:12 left in the first half. There is no telling if it means anything at this point, but it was a little strange considering that the Kings didn’t have Samuel Dalembert, Hassan Whiteside and Darnell Jackson suited up for action. That’s three big guys on the sideline and a 6-foot-11 Greene not playing much and, when he did, not having a real impact.
Late in the second quarter, Casspi was turning up the heat defensively and had a great block called off because of a foul. Casspi finished the half with eight points, four boards and two assists.
Jeter was another of the new “bench mob” that was hustling after loose balls, causing chaos for the Suns. Jeter, who has spent the last few seasons playing for different teams overseas, is starting making his mark on this team. He was three of four from the field and had six points along with two steals before the second quarter ended with the Kings down 58-51.
Once the clock got rolling in the third quarter, you could sense that Westphal had been in their collective ear during halftime. The Kings came out a different team.
Gone were the open drives down the lane that the Suns were starting to get used to. The Kings defensive rotation was starting to click. The chemistry is still evolving, and the process of learning how to play as a team is still in its infant stages.
Evans came out on fire. On one drive, he had a behind the back dribble-drive that was reminiscent of last year and got him to the charity stripe. A minute later, he took a nice pass from Carl Landry and converted. Add that to the three he nailed a moment later along with a Cousins follow on an Evans miss, and the Kings took their first lead of the game 63-62 with 9:03 left in the third quarter.
The elder Landry, Cousins and Evans were really starting to click at this point. You could feel the energy and momentum starting to shift.
Moments later, Cousins had an awesome dunk off a missed shot. After a couple of Marcus Landry long-range bombs, the Kings held a small lead 74-70 with 4:46 left in the third.
Back to Greene’s game for a moment. While he took a nice charge late in the third, he dropped a hard pass from Jason Thompson and missed a wide-open three on a setup from Jeter. Greene received less than 11 minutes on the floor the entire game. Of the personnel who played, only Luther Head and Antoine Wright had less time on the floor.
Because of sloppy play near the end of the quarter, the Suns managed to battle back and tie the game 80-80 after three.
Keeping in mind that the Suns barely gave their probable opening day starting lineup any time on the floor together, the Kings started to pull away in the fourth.
Yes, having all five of the Kings starters play at least 22 minutes was a difference-maker, but the atmosphere was changing regardless. The crowd was really into it even though it wouldn’t count in the standings.
The Kings opened the fourth by showing some full-court defensive pressure and not just letting anyone walk into the lane as they did in the opening period.
Thompson had a nice block and combined to complete a give-and-go with Beno Udrih that gave the Kings a 91-88 lead with 7:08 left in the game. As the crowd started to sense the change on the floor, the first chants of “Defense . . . Defense” were heard throughout the facility.
Thompson was making his presence felt on each end of the floor. He had a great all-around game that included 17 points, 10 boards (five of which were offensive), four assists, one steal and three blocks.
Evans, who finished with 26 points, three rebounds and five assists, ended up being two of three from downtown. Not bad for a guy who last season was, at times, considered to be an inconsistent gunner from that range.
The Kings had some very balanced scoring once the clock wound down to zero. In all, six players (Marcus Landry, Cousins, Evans, Udrih, Thompson and Jeter) finished in double figures in scoring, and two Kings – Cousins and Thompson – had double digits in rebounds.
The only two suited players who didn’t get any court time were Connor Atchley and Joe Crawford. While these guys have been great for the rest of the team to bang against during practice and are giving their all, I think that unless the Kings come down with an unforeseen injury situation, both of these guys will not be on the opening-day roster.
Now if the team can get Dalembert, Whiteside and Jackson healthy, the inside presence the team has missed for many years will be a thing of the past. Even missing all those big men, the Kings still out-rebounded the Suns 47-36.
Now that’s not only news, but new.
After the game, Coach Westphal wanted to recognize one of the harder workers on the Kings roster by giving Jason Thompson his due.
“He’s making great strides,” said the second-year Kings coach. “You take him for granted, his effort, but every practice and every game you know that he is going all-out, and he’s really made a strong case for himself. He’s better than he was last year and better last year than the year before that. Hard work pays off.”
This new chapter in the life of the Kings, whenever it takes it’s full form, will be something the fans of this town have been clamoring for since the days of Vlade, C-Webb and Bad Brad left town.
The time to create new memories lies just around the bend. Even though the fans have heard it before, patience will be the biggest virtue the loyalists can have this season. If so, the rewards and the victories will soon begin to pile up.
Did you go to the game? The Court Jester would love to hear from you. Please put any comments, questions or criticisms below and I will respond.