Against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday, it was Willie Cauley-Stein coming up late to seal the deal with a two-handed dunk. The Kings' fourth-year pro made his presence felt again in the first quarter of Sacramento's lopsided 122-105 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.
This is the player the Kings thought they were getting when they selected Cauley-Stein sixth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. His length and athleticism are off the charts, and he was known as a multi-positional defender during his three seasons at Kentucky.
Cauley-Stein stood out early. He fronted Phoenix big man DeAndre Ayton and invited the Suns' guards to try to throw the ball over the top. When they attempted that pass, he closed out quickly and snared the ball out of the air.
"Trill really set the tone," De'Aaron Fox said of Cauley-Stein. "He had like three steals in the first five or six possessions. He led us tonight, especially on the defensive end."
Cauley-Stein intercepted four balls in the first four minutes, most of which led to fastbreak opportunities for his team.
"It started out with Willie," Buddy Hield said. "Willie made some big key defensive plays out early. It sparked us and we were able to make some shots and everybody was cutting and moving, the offense was clicking on all cylinders."
The Kings are often firing on all cylinders on the offensive end, but on the defensive side, they struggle. Sacramento came into the night ranked 29th in the league in opponents points allowed and 21st in defensive rating.
Before heading out on their current four-game road trip, the Kings went back to the basics on the defensive end during Monday's practice. Coach Dave Joerger said that it felt like a training session, without the running.
"We were locked in," Joerger said during his postgame interview. "We had a good workout, cleaned up some stuff yesterday. We did a much better job defending, which makes it a lot easier to get out and run."
Throughout the season, teams have picked the Kings apart in the two-man game. The return of veteran center Kosta Koufos has helped, but it's a work in progress. It is on Cauley-Stein and Koufos to make the defensive calls, which has been a focus behind the scenes.
"Our pick and roll coverage is continuing to get better and better and louder and louder and communicating," Joerger said. "The bigs run the defense and they're taking that responsibility on and it's getting better."
The defensive struggles are a team-wide issue. Guards are getting beat off the dribble, wings are slow to rotate and the bigs are caught choosing between stopping ball and staying with their man.
With a young team, Joerger is able to practice more often than most clubs. He also has a lot more teaching to do than most coaches have because of the inexperience of his team.
For what his team lacks in understanding and knowledge, they need to make up some other way.
"That's the one thing that we really need to get consistent on is just the effort that we put on defense every given night," Fox said. "Offensely, for the most part it's alway there."
The Kings are saying the right things, and for one night against one of the worst teams in the league, it worked.
Cauley-Stein's aggressive play helped lead to plenty of open looks for Sacramento and they took advantage. The Kings led 36-9 after the first quarter, setting a new franchise mark for the least points allowed in the opening quarter.
The Kings dictated the pace of the game, but they used their defense as a catalyst to break it open.
"Even though we're a young team, we want to come out with the most energy and play together and have fun together, get out in transition and make some plays," Hield said.
Sacramento draws another struggling team on Friday when they fly to Cleveland to face the 5-18 Cavs on the first night of a back-to-back. They'll get a tougher test on Saturday when they play the Indiana Pacers for the second time in a week, this time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.