Pacers Teach Kings a Lesson

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

January 15, 2014 | 12:10 a.m.

The difference between the two teams on the court Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse can be summed up in 3.2 seconds. Or, perhaps more accurately, one 3.2-second sequence.

Riding a monster third quarter from star center DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings had hung just close enough with the Pacers to keep the game within reach. Near the end of the quarter, Cousins dished the ball to Marcus Thornton, who drilled a 3-pointer that seemingly cut Indiana’s 14-point halftime lead to nine points heading into the fourth quarter.

But Ian Mahinmi scooped the ball out of the basket and tossed it to Paul George. George weaved past a couple half-hearted swipes from Thornton and Isaiah Thomas, rolled right past a statue-esque Cousins, and banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to push the Pacers’ lead back to 12 points.

In 3.2 seconds, it was abundantly clear which team is vying for the NBA’s best record and which squad is still learning how to play the game the right way. The Pacers opened the fourth quarter with a 13-2 run to put the game out of reach and cruise to their 19th win in 20 games at The Fieldhouse.

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“Even though it was just 12, I felt like that 12-point lead was really more like 20,” Kings coach Mike Malone said about the feeling on the Sacramento bench heading into the fourth.

Malone repeatedly referred to the game as a “learning experience” for his young but talented team. They got an elementary lesson from one of the NBA’s best teams on Tuesday night about never letting up your guard.

“Marcus came down and hit a big shot,” Cousins said about the lapse at the end of the third. “But at the same time, just because we do that doesn’t mean that the quarter’s over or the play is over or it’s time to stop playing. And (George) came down and got an easy good look. I mean, he basically spotted up for the three…We can’t stop until we have the defensive rebound or that buzzer goes off. That’s a mistake on us."

Their 116-92 loss was a harsh reality check for a Kings team that came into Tuesday’s tilt playing some of their best basketball all season. They’d topped 100 points in 12 straight games. They’d won three straight, beating Western power Portland a week earlier and handing Cleveland a 44-point beatdown on Sunday night. Cousins, Thomas, and Rudy Gay – traded to the Kings from Toronto last month – were forming a formidable three-headed monster on the offensive end.

On Tuesday, however, the Pacers schooled Sacramento in nearly all aspects.

“We scored 92 points on 92 possessions, obviously, which is a very poor points per possession,” Malone noted. “I think they scored 116 points on 82 shots, so they did a good job defensively and offensively.”

Added Cousins: “We just couldn’t match their physicality. I would say they manhandled us tonight. And it showed.”

The Pacers held Gay and Thomas, each averaging just a hair under 20 points per game on the season, to 19 points combined on 9-for-23 shooting.

Granted, Cousins got his. The NBA’s seventh-leading scorer and fifth-leading rebounder looked the part of a budding superstar when he posted a double-double in the third quarter alone, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the period, six of them on the offensive end.

Cousins opened the fourth quarter on the bench, initially planned for just a few minutes rest. But when the Pacers opened the game up early in the period and with the Kings scheduled to play again Wednesday night in Minnesota, Malone elected to keep Cousins out, giving him a final line of 31/13 in 30+ minutes.

Containing two of the other teams’ three stars and allowing the other to go off – Pacers head coach Frank Vogel will take those results any night.

“You’ve got to give them credit, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the NBA,” Thomas said. “But also, I think with me and Rudy, we want to get out in transition and get in the open court. We didn’t get that.”

Malone added: “I’d be doing Frank Vogel and his team and his staff a disservice (if I didn’t give them credit). They’re the number one defensive team in the NBA for a reason. They protect that paint. Even (Cousins) really had to work to get his points tonight.”

Thomas and Gay’s struggles were a factor, but Sacramento placed more of the blame for their loss on defensive lapses. The Pacers scored a season-high in points and shot 55 percent from the field. Often times, like at the end of the third quarter, Pacers players barely-contested or, in some cases, completely uncontested looks.

In the first half in particular, the Pacers profited off the Kings’ mistakes. Sacramento turned the ball over 13 times in the first 24 minutes, allowing Indiana to run out to 18 fastbreak points. Malone noted that scoring in transition isn’t usually the Pacers’ strength – they only averaged 10.9 points per game on the break coming into Tuesday.

In the second half, Paul George broke out of his mini-slump, scoring 24 of his 31 points after the break. George hit 7-of-12 shots in the second half, 3-of-4 from 3-point range and got to the foul line eight times after not attempting a free throw in the first half.

“He was working the transition, he got the ball, he got to the foul line,” Gay, who had the primary task of guarding George, said. “He was moving a lot and he scored off our miscues. He benefited off of that.

“Not to take anything – he’s a great player, he can score in a lot of different ways. But today, he basically scored off our miscues.”

In the postgame locker room, Thomas said he felt that the Kings “backtracked” in two main areas: “defense and playing together.” Perhaps not coincidentally, those are the Pacers’ two calling cards.

Mike Malone hoped his team could learn something from Tuesday’s loss. They might be wise to look at the team across the court for some inspiration.

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