SACRAMENTO -- Basketball was supposed to take a back seat Thursday night at the Golden 1 Center. After countless failed attempts to build a new arena in Sacramento, the Kings were almost allowed to leave twice. But a new building comes another 30-plus year lease, cementing NBA hoops in the capital of California until at least the midway point of the century.
The evening was supposed to be a celebration of an accomplishment that many believed would never happen. And then a basketball game broke out.
No one expected the Kings to compete with the San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich’s club won 67 games last season and were fresh off a smackdown of the Golden State Warriors in the season opener on Tuesday.
But this isn’t the 2015-16 Sacramento Kings that would routinely yield 110 points to their opponents. This is Dave Joerger’s club and they are grinders.
The end result was a loss, but one that you can live with. 102-94 doesn’t tell the whole story. For much of the night, the Kings were the best team on the floor.
“I consider this a good loss,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “I’m ready for the next one.”
There are moral victories when you are two games into an 82 game schedule and you go toe-to-toe with one of the best in the league. The mood in past seasons would have been somber in the Kings locker room, but that is not what it felt like on Thursday evening.
“The scary apart about it is we’ve still got so much more room to improve,” Cousins said. “In the past, you usually walk in here and guys are sulking and pissed off. (Tonight) it’s like okay, let’s get onto the next one. We know we made some mistakes. We know we broke down, but we’re on the right path right now.”
That path is built on a defensive identity and the Kings are building chemistry at a shocking rate. With five new rotational players and three new starters, Sacramento’s roster is still learning how to play together.
“As a group, we were pretty good defensively, we communicate with each other, so we’re always going to have a chance every night,” veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo said.
When you play the Spurs, your margin for error is almost nill. The game turned on a turnover here and a mistake there and that’s something you can’t have when you’re playing a group that has been together for years in the same system.
“Defensively, I think we took a step in the right direction,” Rudy Gay said. “They’re a great team, I think we played great defense. Had a couple of letdowns, but it’s a basketball game. They’re a veteran team playing together. They have a system and they stuck to their system.”
It will go down as the first loss in the history of the Golden 1 Center, but the Kings are showing signs that they might be better than expected.
As for the opening of the building, it went off without a hitch. Both David Stern and Adam Silver were in attendance to see the event. As was Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, former Sacramento Kings All-Star Chris Webber, mayor Kevin Johnson and a bevy of local celebrities.
It was an emotional night all around, even for Cousins who has spent the first six-plus seasons of his career in a Kings uniform.
“It was beautiful, man,” the Kings’ big man said from his locker stall. “As much as this city has been through, as much as they fought, they were more than deserving of this night. I wish we could have sealed the deal with a win, but we got 80 more so we can make it up later.”
The Kings face a young and athletic Minnesota Timberwolves team on Saturday that has given them fits in the past. It’s a new challenge that this team looks better prepared to face this season.