In losses to Thunder and Spurs, young Kings take their lumps

In losses to Thunder and Spurs, young Kings take their lumps

A month ago, a scheduled back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs on the road looked ugly for the Sacramento Kings. They were in a playoff chase and at best, they were hoping for a split.

The team’s record means very little now and after falling in OKC and then again in San Antonio the next night by a final of 118-102, the Kings are positioned slightly better in the lottery standings.   

It’s a change in perspective that was forced upon the group after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins. The franchise’s ideological transformation has taken place and a youth movement is in full motion.

A lot can be gleaned from a battle with San Antonio. They are the gold standard of professional franchises and they play their very own distinctive brand of hoops. If you can’t learn from watching and playing against a team like the Spurs, maybe you don’t belong in the league.

“They’re professionals, man, it’s the Spurs,” Buddy Hield told reporters. “They find a way to grind it and win. It’s a culture, it’s an issue they’ve shown. It’s good to learn from a team like this.”

The Kings aren’t going to forfeit any games down the stretch. They are going to show up and take their lumps with a rotation that now features a slew of first and second year players. Injuries have hurt their depth and with two players away from the team due to personal reasons, the team is undersized and outmanned.   

“They come at you at you in waves and waves and they did a great job,” Dave Joerger said of San Antonio. “The biggest story is they are just bigger and more experienced.”

Sacramento can fix the issue of size during the offseason, specifically at the small forward position. They can even bring in players with more experience, but half of the Spurs roster has been together for six years or more and that familiarity is extremely tough to overcome for a newly formed team like the Kings.

“We’re young, but we still have to find a way to compete and get back in the flow and execute much stronger and think harder,” Hield added.

Hield has played in 13 games with the Kings since coming over from the New Orleans Pelicans. He has a moxy to him that was sorely needed as the Kings hit the reset button on their roster. The 23-year-old shooting guard even found himself matched up against the league’s best two-way player in Kawhi Leonard and he held his own.

“We’re not backing down, we’re in this league too, no one is going to feel sorry for us” Hield said. “We’ve got to keep getting better and keep growing.”

Hield finished the night with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting. He added five rebounds and five assists in his 32 minutes of action and continues to show signs that he is a starting level NBA player moving forward.

That is what this Kings season has become - a job interview for next season for the young players.

Hield has shown flashes in his brief stay in Sacramento. He can score both from the perimeter and in the lane. He has shown an ability to rebound for a wing player and Joerger and his staff are building a list of items that they will ask the rookie to work on over the summer.

While Hield has played more minutes in year one, he’s in a very similar spot that fellow rookie Skal Labissiere is in. The 21-year-old Haitian product continues to put up numbers, despite very limited exposure to the NBA game.

“It’s a great learning experience, it’s all about growth right now,” Labissiere said. “Whenever I go out there I try to learn as much as I can for the next game or the next season coming up.”

Labissiere dropped in 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 24 minutes of action. He continues to improve and has now scored in double-figures in four straight contests for Sacramento.

“I work so much on my skillset, I feel like I can score the basketball whenever,” said Labissiere.

Hield and Labissiere have Kings fans excited, but fellow first rounder Georgios Papagiannis has been a complete unknown.

After spending most of the season in the D-League, the 7-foot-1 Greek-born big has played a combined 46 minutes over the last two games (98 minutes total for his career). He set career-highs in points (14) and rebounds (11) against the Thunder and backed that up with a 6-point, 10-rebound game against the Spurs.

Papagiannis has tremendous size and a soft touch. Getting to play against Steven Adams one night and Pau Gasol the next is both overwhelming and instructive. The fact that he’s grabbed double-digit rebounds in both games shows promise.

Second-year big Willie Cauley-Stein added 18 points, five assists and four rebounds in the losing effort to San Antonio. Like Hield, Labissiere and Papagiannis, Cauley-Stein continues to show improvement as the season winds down.

These four, along with the injured Malachi Richardson, make up the Kings’ young core moving forward. They will have nights where they shock teams like Orlando or Phoenix, but they will also have tough night’s against perennial playoff contenders like the Thunder and Spurs.

It’s a process. Patience is required as a new generation of Kings players build from the ground up.

Kings can't contain Westbrook, Thunder in road loss

Kings can't contain Westbrook, Thunder in road loss

BOX SCORE

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook didn't get a fifth straight triple-double, but the Oklahoma City Thunder won their fifth straight game and that was all he cared about Saturday.

Westbrook had 28 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists to help the Thunder roll past the Sacramento Kings 110-94. Oklahoma City has the longest current winning streak in the NBA and it's moved the Thunder into a tie for fifth in the Western Conference, pending the result of the Los Angeles Clippers' game against Cleveland later Saturday.

"We're getting it together, man," Westbrook said. "We had new guys coming in fresh off trades. We just had to find ways to get guys going. It's not always easy to be able to do that."

Westbrook had a triple-double in each of the first four games of the streak to raise his season total to 34. He needs seven more in Oklahoma City's final 13 games to tie Oscar Robertson for the NBA single-season record, set in the 1961-62 season.

Sacramento kept the game just close enough in the fourth quarter that Westbrook didn't leave the game for good until 58.6 seconds remained. He said he wasn't paying attention to his stats - "I just play, bro," he said when questioned about it - and Thunder coach Billy Donovan insisted the same.

"I don't follow it during the game," Donovan said. "I have no idea. Any time I'm making a decision, it's never a decision being made on somebody's statistical line. I'm just trying to do what I can to help our team be put in a position to win and play to the best of our ability."

Georgios Papagiannis had 14 points and 11 rebounds for Sacramento, which had a two-game winning streak snapped.

A 7-0 run, capped by a basket by Buddy Hield, gave Sacramento its only lead at 10-9 less than six minutes into the game. Steven Adams' dunk started an 11-0 spurt by the Thunder and the Kings came no closer than eight points the rest of the game.

The Thunder pushed its lead to 22 points in the second quarter and led 63-41 at halftime after last-minute 3-pointers by Victor Oladipo and Westbrook.

Sacramento came no closer than 14 points in the second half, on a put-back dunk by Skal Labissiere that made it 87-73 with 9:18 left. Westbrook re-entered the game, converted a three-point play, then assisted on a basket by Oladipo and a 3-pointer by Doug McDermott, pushing the Thunder's lead to 95-75.

"This is the fun time of year, when you're fighting for playoff position, you're fighting for home-court advantage," Sacramento coach Dave Joerger said. "They played fantastic and we learned a lot, especially the first half. . The second half, we kind of got ourselves up off the floor and picked up our level of intensity physically. We just talked about getting better and learning from this game and that is hopefully where we'll be in a couple of years if we keep taking steps forward."

TIP-INS:
Kings: Tyreke Evans didn't suit up due to what the team called a sore left ankle and Aaron Afflalo and Ben McLemore also skipped the game for personal reasons, leaving the Kings with only 11 players. ... Labissiere celebrated his 21st birthday by picking up three fouls in his first four minutes and scoring 13 points. His 32-point, 11-rebound outing on Wednesday in a win at Phoenix made him the first Kings rookie with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in a game since Lionel Simmons on April 9, 1991, against Dallas. ... Hield, who led Oklahoma to last year's Final Four, received a loud ovation during pregame introductions.

Thunder: Westbrook has 71 career triple-doubles and needs seven more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list. ... The Thunder are the sixth Western Conference team to win 40 games this season. ... Adams recorded his 13th double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 rebounds.

AGGRESSIVE McDERMOTT:
McDermott had his highest-scoring game with the Thunder since being acquired from Chicago on Feb. 23, going 8 of 9 from the field, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, and finishing with 21 points. He said he's making a point to be more aggressive off the dribble.

"I've been working on it because they are flying at me pretty hard," he said. "I have to have alternatives. . I just got into a good rhythm early. I got out in transition and hit some shots which got my confidence going."

UP NEXT:
Kings: Finish a difficult road back-to-back at San Antonio on Sunday.

Thunder: Host Golden State - missing the injured Kevin Durant - on Monday.

Out of playoff picture, Joerger loosening reigns on young Kings

Out of playoff picture, Joerger loosening reigns on young Kings

SACRAMENTO -- A little over two weeks ago, the Sacramento Kings beat the Denver Nuggets to draw within a half game of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race. After Saturday’s 105-92 loss to those same Nuggets, Sacramento has dropped eight straight and their playoff dreams have been put to bed.

“It was one of those games,” coach Dave Joerger said. “We looked heavy legged, made some mental mistakes and some physical mistakes but Denver is playing very, very well.  They cut well, they pass well, they’ve got some good, young ball players.”

These two teams could have been fighting all the way down the stretch, but the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans hit a hard reset button in Sacramento. The focus now is on the transition to younger players.

Joerger has been slow to turn to his young core, relying heavily on veterans for most of the season. But over the last two weeks, he has loosened the reigns on Willie Cauley-Stein and rookies Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere.

“These guys are playing good,” Joerger said of the three. “I played Buddy Hield 30 minutes. I played Willie Cauley-Stein 35 and a half. I played Skal 20. I could play them 48, but I don’t think that’s what’s best for them.”

Hield picked up his second straight start for the Kings and played well. Like Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein, he is a work in progress and will require patience. He finished the night with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed six rebounds.

“He really shoots it,” Joerger added. “If he gets a window and gets a clean look, he can really shoot it. I think that’s fantastic.”

Cauley-Stein aggressively attacked the Nuggets front line, which is a positive step. He finished the night just 3-of-11 from the field, but he shot 7-of-8 from the line. His 13-point, five-rebound, five-assist game doesn’t jump off the page, but the fact that he is becoming a consistent threat on the offensive end is a major step forward.

After playing sparingly throughout the first two-thirds of the season, Labissiere is turning heads with his recent play. The 20-year-old big man scored a modest seven points in 19 minutes of action, but that’s because he went an uncharacteristic 1-of-5 from the free throw line.

Labissiere came into the league with a reputation as a player who doesn’t like contact. Since getting minutes he’s shown flashes of brilliance, be it as a rebounder or with his highlight reel dunks in traffic. He needs to get stronger, but the 6-foot-11 big has quickly moved well beyond his reputation and is showing star potential.  

“When I go out the on the court, I try to leave it all out there,” Labissiere said. “I love the game so much and I don’t try to cheat it at all. I’m blessed to even be here playing this game.”  

The Kings remain competitive, despite the youth movement and the extended losing streak. They are in almost every game, but the season is now about development and not a chase for the postseason.

“The young guys are playing hard, the vets are trying to teach the younger guys some things,” Kosta Koufos said. “Everybody is playing their role.”

It’s a tough pill to swallow for the veterans, but the Kings locker room is filled with quality character guys. The season began with so much promise and now the change in focus is to prepare for next year. While the veterans may see a reduction in minutes, their value on the team is just as high as it’s even been.

“We’ve got a young team now, but we’ve got some guys that have been in this situation,” Garrett Temple said. “For those guys who have been in this situation, we’ve got to continue to explain to [the younger players] why we have to stay positive and keep chipping away.”

The Kings finish their three-game homestand Monday when the 24-43 Orlando Magic roll through Golden 1 Center.