The Sacramento Kings looked a lot like themselves in Monday's 120-100 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that's kind of the problem.
Spiraling downward in the standings, distracted by reports that George Karl's job is all but gone and pitted against a top-tier foe on the road, the Kings could have sent a message with this game. They could have signaled to anyone watching that they weren't finished. That they would fight to reclaim that No. 8 seed in the West. That they could make things different.
But no, the Kings were the same.
As was the news after the final buzzer, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com: "NBA coaching sources told ESPN that the Kings have decided internally that a change on the bench is needed, and is most likely to happen after Sacramento plays its final game before the All-Star break Wednesday night in Philadelphia."
The 120 points surrendered made it a three-game running total of 376. Cleveland shot 47.9 percent from the field and got absolutely whatever it wanted from deep (45.7 percent from three) and on the break. LeBron James notched the his first triple-double of the season (21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) with time to spare in the third quarter.
Every transition opportunity yielded quality shots, and the Kings' nonexistent effort turned basic screens into impenetrable walls.
DeMarcus Cousins continued his "now you see me, now you don't" effort pattern, and one specific stretch of the third quarter—in which he committed an offensive foul by elbowing Kevin Love in the face and then attempted a hopeless isolation attack in the lane on consecutive possessions—highlighted his dissatisfaction.
He was mostly checked out all night, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal:
Rondo, in addition to dying on every screen and generally wandering around on defense, got his requisite counting numbers. He finished with seven points, 16 assists and eight rebounds. The box score won't tell you that he also repeatedly stalled out possessions and scuttled transition opportunities as he continued the nonstop assist-hunt that has been the defining characteristic of his recent years. His performance against the Cavs was a perfect example of why his team has played better without him on the floor this season, per NBA.com.
The Kings' problems go beyond Cousins and Rondo, though those two high-profile players deserve an outsized share of the blame. Still, it's apparent that Sacramento's dysfunction goes deeper, per Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee:
But wait! There's more!
According to Chris Mannix of The Vertical, their issues go all the way to the top and, what's worse, will make sorting this whole mess out with a new coach harder than it needs to be: "Coaches with options don’t fight to work for management that refuses to support the people it hires, and they don’t sign on with an owner who seems more interested in the cache that comes with owning an NBA team than the business of operating one."
Mannix reported that Sacramento's minority owners want to take control from Vivek Ranadive, and whether that happens or not, there's still the trouble of a roster whose core hasn't achieved much under any coach or owner. Can Cousins lead by example if he's scowling and loafing every time his teammates look to him? Can Rondo, a free agent after the season, run a team when the thing he does best seems to actively work against offensive success?
Sacramento made its intentions clear over the summer, punting picks for present help. The playoffs were the goal, which makes this reminder from CSN California's James Ham sting a little extra:
The Kings desperately need a new direction, and firing Karl is the easy, conventional and probably necessary move in furtherance of that aim. Even then, the playoffs feel like a pipe dream.
And long term, who wants to coach this roster? Who wants to work for this ownership group and its fickle whims? Who wants to deal with the added pressure that will come with an inaugural season in a brand new arena next year?
Sacramento's next coaching hire had better be someone truly spectacular. Truly different.
Because if we know anything about the Kings, it's that they're remarkably good at staying the same.
Hornets Can Pounce
You don't normally think of hornets pouncing. They swarm. They strike. They sting.
But they don't usually pounce. It just doesn't sound right.
All the same, the Charlotte Hornets pounced on a vulnerable Chicago Bulls team missing both Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose on Monday, notching a 108-91 win. Up early after five made triples contributed to a 38-20 first-quarter lead, the Hornets cruised home behind 30 points from Kemba Walker and yet another stellar effort from plus-minus darling Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The shorthanded Bulls couldn't get themselves together for a comeback. In fact, Chicago didn't even threaten to make it interesting, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:
Aside from proving that hornets sometimes pounce, the victory gave Charlotte a critical edge in the playoff race. The win clinched a head-to-head tiebreaker (by virtue of a season series win)—which might end up mattering, because Chicago, the current No. 7 seed in the East, is only a game-and-a-half ahead of No. 9 Hornets.
At least Chicago had better hope it matters. The way things look right now, with the Bulls losing three straight and the Hornets riding a stretch of seven wins in their last 10, Charlotte might just shoot ahead of the Bulls, rendering tiebreakers irrelevant.
Paul George Is Blunt
Kobe Bryant shot just 6-of-25 in the Lost Angeles Lakers' 89-87 loss to the Indiana Pacers, but he still managed to be the focal point of the whole affair—partly because he dunked (sort of), and partly because he went on a late-game tear that included 11 points in a 105-second span.
Unfortunately, Bryant heaved up five hopeless prayers after his short fourth-quarter scoring streak, missing them all. His heat check bounced.
Paul George also blew by him for a decisive and-1 layup. How'd you get to the cup so easily, PG?
Yes, Kobe's old. But he's also an icon, which is why he gets to be the feel-good story—even after a horrific shooting night that would have gotten any other player pilloried. We've only got a couple more months of this from Bryant, so it's probably best to just enjoy it while we can.
Joe Johnson (Still) Does What He Does
Much to the delight of efficiency worshippers everywhere, the days of Iso Joe are mostly done. Brooklyn Nets wing Joe Johnson is in his 15th season, and he's not the one-on-one threat he used to be.
Unless he gets a crack at an ill-prepared big man like Denver Nuggets forward Jusuf Nurkic.
That was almost the first crossover in league history to break four ankles. If Brook Lopez doesn't sidestep the tumbling Nurkic there, we're talking about a two-man, nearly 600-pound heap of mangled extremities.
Oh, and Johnson drilled the buzzer-beating game-winner, too!
No surprise, considering his track record, per NBA on ESPN:
Brooklyn's 105-104 victory was just its 14th on the season. With no first-rounder in this year's draft, at least Johnson's heroics didn't do any harm to lottery position. In fact, Johnson's meme-worthy efforts might have upped his trade value, or at least made him a more palatable buyout candidate.
Win-win for the Nets.
The Sixers Are Getting Good At This
The greatest trick the Philadelphia 76ers ever pulled was convincing the world they were done tanking. Since putting Jerry Colangelo into a power position and acknowledging Sam Hinkie’s approach might have been a little too coldly analytical, Philly has improved its record from 1-21 to 8-44.
Summation: Better, but still bad.
And that’s good, because the Sixers need that top overall pick to really get this thing going. So as long as they stay in lottery pole position, exciting results like Monday’s 98-92 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers are perfectly fine.
That last-second loss to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 30? Great!
Wins over the Suns and Nets in the last two weeks? Sure, get a little taste of victory!
The 76ers are kind of killing it right now, staying mostly entertaining and occasionally competitive while also piling up those losses. They’ll have to be careful about cutting it so close sometimes—.J. Redick hit a three with 10 seconds left in regulation to force OT, and the Clips had to erase a 19-point deficit to get back into it before that—but as long as the Sixers wind up with fewer wins than the Lakers (who have 11 so far), they’ll be in good shape.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
And losses, apparently.
So get this: That Atlanta Hawks just dropped their second game to the Orlando Magic in as many nights—this one a 117-110 overtime affair. Orlando also beat the Hawks on Sunday in the first half of the home-and-home set. Stranger still, Atlanta also lost both ends of a home-and-home set against the New York Knicks on Jan. 3 and 5.
How weird is that?
Do the Hawks just figure they don’t need to take lottery teams seriously the first time around and then forget to watch tape before the second? Do they feel bad for these teams and just want to do their charity in bulk?
Sure, Paul Millsap’s shot at the end of regulation would have skirted the sweep if it hadn’t come milliseconds after the buzzer. But the Hawks coughed up a 20-point lead to one of the worst offenses in the league, so it's hard to pin the result on that late-stage play.
It would be encouraging if this second instance of back-to-back failure were just a blip. But the truth is it’s symptomatic of a team that has been prone to bad losses all year—one annoyed by its vulnerability, according to what Kyle Korver told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Maybe that’s true. Maybe the Hawks can stabilize this thing and push up toward 50 wins and a No. 2 seed in the East. Or maybe they’re just this shaky.
We’ll find out on Mar. 21 and 23...when the Washington Wizards get two consecutive shots at them.
Karl. Anthony. Towns.
Forget the hyphen. We’re using periods for emphasis. This is how Karl. Anthony. Towns. spells his name now.
And here's the other thing: We don't even need to use sentences to describe what the most promising rookie since pretty much ever (who had 19 points and 12 rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting in the Minnesota Timberwolves' 116-102 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday) does from night to night.
We just show clips like this:
And then we say something like "Gaaaaaah!"
Or like this:
Followed by "Whaaaaaaaaat?!"
You're going to tell your grandchildren about KAT someday, and they'll probably be confused when you shout "Gaaaaaah" and "Whaaaaaaaat?!" at them in your explanation. But those are the only reasonable terms to use.
The Blazers Are Almost There
Overtime night in the NBA continued with the Portland Trail Blazers’ 112-106 win against the Memphis Grizzlies, and this one got the Blazers achingly close to a pair of previously unthinkable goals.
Now just one game below .500 (that's the first), the supposedly rebuilding Blazers are also just a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the eighth playoff spot in the West (that's the second).
Closing the distance will be tough, as Portland gets the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in its next two contests. The good news, though, is that it’ll see the Jazz on Feb. 21 for an eighth-seed reckoning.
Utah feels like the truer playoff-caliber outfit, built on defense and boasting a deeper pool of established talent. But the Blazers reached OT in that win over Memphis by virtue of Jeff Green's own-goal tip-in at the fourth-quarter buzzer. So maybe this is just meant to be.
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