SACRAMENTO -- It’s all hands on deck in Sacramento. Coach Dave Joerger is turning to different faces, young and old trying to find the right mix early in the 2016-17 season. His first unit got off to a slow start Saturday night, so he pulled a hockey-style line change in the mid-first quarter, swapping all five players at one time.
It’s a work in progress. The Kings fell behind by as many as 18 in the first half before riding an impressive 24-1 run in the third to go into the final frame with a lead. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, Sacramento pulled out a 106-103 victory over the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves to improve to 2-1 on the season.
“It’s just being resilient,” Matt Barnes told media following the game. “This is a game of runs. In the past, this team would get hit face and kind of hang their heads. But we’re a resilient bunch this year.”
This game was not for the faint of heart. Kings fans were booing the team’s effort early in the game as Minnesota shot well over 60 percent for much of the first half. But a different team emerged from the locker room following the intermission and it was the young Timberwolves that looked dazed and confused.
“We need games like this, up and down battles,” Rudy Gay said from his locker stall. “That’s a progressing team. They’re getting better. They have a great coach, they have a great defense and great players. That’s a good win for us.”
It seems like just yesterday that Gay was asking for a plane ticket out of Sacramento, but through three games, he has been incredible for Sacramento. The 30-year-old wing scored 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting and added five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 33 minutes of action.
“I just want to win, plain and simple, I want to win,” Gay said emphatically. “Coach has put me in a position to help the team.”
It’s early in the season, but Gay is playing with an intensity that was missing last season. He’s complimenting DeMarcus Cousins on the offensive side of the ball, averaging 22.3 points per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the field. He’s attacking the rim and he’s even averaging two blocks per game on the defensive end.
“Honestly, last year was a blur to me,” Gay said. “I don’t even know where I lived last year.”
That is a sentiment shared by most of the players that survived the 2015-16 season in Sacramento. But they are turning the page and moving forward as a new group. It’s too early to make any predictions, but this team has a completely different feel from the one that went 33-49 last season.
DeMarcus Cousins put on his typical wrecking ball performance. The two-time All-Star ran over second-year big Karl-Anthony Towns on his way to 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists. He fouled out in the final minute with the game still undecided, leaving the game in the hands of Gay, Barnes and the rest of the Kings roster.
It wasn’t pretty, but they got the big defensive stop when they needed it. Barnes grabbed a rebound with .2 seconds remaining in the game and hit one-of-two at the stripe to seal the victory.
Old by NBA standards, Barnes will turn 37 in March. But you wouldn’t guess that by watching him play. He runs the floor like a gazelle. His defensive rotations are nearly flawless. And despite playing through rib injuries, he’s doing the little things that help a team win. A block here. Three makes from behind the arc. Whatever the team needs, Barnes finds a way to deliver, despite being in pain.
“I’ve got bad ribs and I got elbowed in my sternum too,” Barnes said as he tried to remove ice bags from his midsection. “I don’t think it’s getting old. It’s just bad luck. I’m just catching elbows for some reason, but I’ll be alright.”
A surprise addition to the team, Barnes signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Sacramento, his hometown team. He spent last season with Joerger in Memphis and the Kings’ new coach has relied heavily on his veteran forward early in the season.
“His heart, his grit, his toughness, that’s something I think everybody in this locker can appreciate,” Cousins said of Barnes. “And even at the age of 45, he still goes out there and looks like one of the young fellas. You’ve got to appreciate a guy like that.”
Barnes finished the evening with 12 points, five rebounds and a game-high nine assists. Every team can use a multi-positional veteran to fill the gaps and that is exactly what Barnes is bringing to the Kings roster.
“He’s a warrior,” Rudy Gay said following the game. “He’s battling through a couple of injuries. He didn’t play in the preseason. But he’s been great for us. He’s hit some tough shots, some great passes that led to some big baskets. He’s really part of the reason we won tonight.”
The Kings embark on a five-game road trip beginning Monday in Atlanta. They leave the friendly confines of the Golden 1 Center with a solid 2-1 record. They’ll return to Sacramento on Nov. 8 to face the New Orleans Pelicans, which just so happens to be the day that point guard Darren Collison is eligible to return from suspension.