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As the season winds down, the challenge becomes: How do you keep a 20-41 team still yearning for more wins and team cohesion?
How about play the San Antonio Spurs (45-16) in front of a nearly packed house and learn from the seemingly simple way the team from Texas goes about its everyday business?
The plan worked for 24 minutes. After halftime, the Spurs decided to lay the smackdown and really show the Sacramento Kings (20-42) how the formula translates on the floor by outscoring the home team 69-42 in the second half on way to a 127-102 rout at Power Balance Pavilion Wednesday evening.
The good news was that the Kings took an early 6-0 lead on the backs of Tyreke Evans and Jason Thompson scoring and rebounding.
The bad: That would be the biggest lead the home team would have the entire contest.
After the opening run by the Kings, the balance of the quarter was played very evenly.
For Sacramento, Marcus Thornton (20 points) was on fire. He hit six of seven shots, hit two from beyond the arc and finished the quarter with 14.
One amazing highlight from the first was when, with about eight minutes left, DeMarcus Cousins snatched a rebound and threw the ball more than half the distance of the court to a sprinting Isaiah Thomas, who was being shadowed by Danny Green. Already down on defense for the Spurs was Kawhi Leonard, so, even on the great pass from the Big Cuz, Thomas was essentially already double-teamed.
Luckily for Thomas (21 points, eight assists), Thornton was trailing the play. Without looking, Thomas jumped in the air and, with his back turned to Thornton, dumped an over-the-shoulder, one-handed pass into the waiting hands of Thornton, who made a sweet reverse lay-up for the bucket.
The final play of the quarter seemed to give the Kings a lift. Cousins, after missing a layup, grabbed the rebound and the bucket to give the Kings a 29-28 lead after one.
The second quarter was nearly identical to the first with the teams taking turns leading. At the midway point of the quarter, the Kings went on an 8-0 run, which was immediately followed by an 8-0 Spurs run.
About halfway through the second, “Magic” Cousins, as Jerry Reynolds like to call him on occasion, grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast for a driving layup that brought the crowd to its feet.
Even though the Kings found themselves down by one at the halfway point, it was a great game with both teams shooting over 50 percent. The only real noticeable difference was that the Spurs got to the line 21 times compared to only seven for the Kings.
As they have been lately, the Kings came out in the third trying to establish Cousins inside. Unfortunately, he missed his first four shots which helped the Spurs go on an early 13-4 run and acquire a 10-point lead.
The Spurs interior defense is stifling. Combine that with them shooting almost 64 percent in the third and nearly 59 percent for the game, and they are a tough team to beat.
You could just feel the air come out of the team once the fourth got going. The Spurs opened with a 13-4 run that doomed the home team’s chances of pulling out a win.
A scary situation for Thornton occurred when he banged knees with Manu Ginobili (13 points, five assists) late in the third and had to be helped off the court. It was almost the same spot he was hurt a few weeks back. Word spread that he wouldn’t return, but you can’t keep an angry man down. When will he return to the game?
“Right away, man, right away,” he said. “I’m a competitor first. Pete (Youngman) asked me if I wanted to sit out, and I said no. As it went on it started stiffening up, and they told me to ice it up and try to get ready for Friday.”
He joked that he told Kings trainer Youngman to “make him a whole body armor suit next time.”
Thornton expounded on why the Spurs are such a hard matchup for many teams in the league.
“They’re tough. They’re the best team,” he said. “They’ve got players at every position, and they can go out and be productive, not just on the offensive end but one the defensive end, too. That’s the mark of a great team.”
Playing defense in the paint against the Spurs is a tough challenge for any team, as witnessed by Cousins fouling out and Chuck Hayes picking up five himself. They run the same stuff repeatedly and do it so well, you can’t effectively stop it.
“They have great spacing,” Hayes said. “Everybody knows their roles, and we always got stuck in a position where we were always behind, and that’s how we got into foul trouble.”
Hayes says the Kings can learn from the way San Antonio spreads the floor and sticks with the plan.
“Run your stuff!” he said. “Don’t break the play. Don’t try to be a hero. Run your stuff. And that’s all they do. They don’t do nothing special. They don’t do nothing crazy. They run the play.That’s why they always say it’s boring basketball. But they win. That’s all that matters.”
GAME NOTES: Thomas was acknowledged for his fine play this season by Reebok handing out an autographed pair of shoes and an “I.T.” T-shirt to everyone in Kings Row One . . . Even though he fouled out halfway through the fourth, Cousins ended with 18 points and nine boards . . . Seven players scored in double figures for the Spurs, including Leonard (13 points), Green (11 points), Tony Parker (15 points, eight assists), Stephen Jackson (13 points), Gary Neal (17 points) and Tiago Splitter (17 points, seven boards).
PHOTOS COURTESY OF:
NICK HUNTE and MARK NEEDHAM