Losing never feels good. Blowing a 28-point lead adds to the insult. The Sacramento Kings are in a tailspin and there is not a lot anyone can do to stop it.
Sacramento had the Spurs on the ropes for the entire first half, delivering body blows to a team looking for their 50th win of the season. Without Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge to slow the onslaught, the Kings built what should have been an insurmountable lead.
But this isn’t the same Sacramento Kings team that beat the Cavs, the Warriors, the Celtics and the Raptors earlier in the year. This is a team in transition, making San Antonio’s 114-110 come-from-behind win almost expected.
“Hats off to them, they played terrific, especially the last three quarters - making shots, getting to the line and they took care of the basketball after the first quarter,” coach Dave Joerger told media members following the loss. “Good for them, and congratulations on their 50th win.”
Joerger’s team built their big lead with monster first quarters from both Tyreke Evans and Kosta Koufos. Evans, who joined the Kings as part of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, scored 13 of his 26 points in the 12 minutes of the game.
“I’m just getting back after 11 months (off due to injury),” Evans told reporters. “I’m trying to get my feet wet and just get my legs back.”
The 27-year-old wing started at the small forward position for Joerger and looked very comfortable against one of the league’s best defenses.
Koufos scored 10 of his 12 points in the opening quarter as the Kings jumped out to the 37-15 lead. The veteran big added 10 rebounds for his third straight double-double.
The veterans weren’t the only players to find success against the vaunted Spurs defense. Rookies Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere continue to show that they belong.
“We’ve got some good young talent and for them to come out here and play against that type of caliber of defense, the way the Spurs are playing, that’s something they want to take from them,” Collison said.
Hield shot the lights out early. He finished the night with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting from behind the arc in just 18 minutes of action. Since joining the Kings seven games ago, the 23-year-old out of Oklahoma University is averaging 12.9 points on 51.6 shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from long range in 23.7 minutes a night.
Labissiere toiled on the Kings bench for most of the season, traveling back and forth between the parent club and the Reno Bighorns of the D-League. Since the Cousins trade, he’s finally gotten an opportunity and he’s taking full advantage.
“Sky’s the limit for him,” Evans said of the 6-foot-11 rookie out of Kentucky. “He’s young, talented, athletic. He can do a lot, he just has to keep working and get better.”
The 20-year-old Haitian-born big shows no fear. He attacked San Antonio’s veteran frontline, coming away with a career-high 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting and chipped in six rebounds in 15 minutes of floor time.
“I’m impressed with Skal,” point guard Darren Collison said. “It seems like his continuing improvement keeps growing and that’s what you want.”
Joerger has taken it slow with the 28th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, but it might be time to turn the lanky forward loose. He’s shown the ability to rebound outside of his area and his turnaround baseline jumper is nearly impossible to defend.
Labissiere brings an energy and excitement to a Kings lineup that has now lost six straight and fallen four games out of the race for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff chase.
In the end, Joerger turned back to his veterans, who couldn’t stem the tide against one of the league’s best. After building a huge lead, San Antonio steadily chipped away, outscoring the Kings 99-67 after the first quarter.
“They got us off our spots, it’s hard for us to have the same continuity that we had in the first half,” Collison said. “You’ve got to give them credit, that’s what they’re known for, especially in their building and we kind of played into their game.”
With the win, the Spurs notched their 18th consecutive 50-win season. The last time the Spurs didn’t post 50 wins was in the strike shortened 1998-99 season when they won 74 percent of their games and took home the NBA title.
Following the loss, the Kings flew home to Sacramento where they will play back-to-back games at Golden 1 Center on Friday and Saturday night. They’ll face John Wall and the Wizards first, and then matchup against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.