SACRAMENTO, Calif. – If the final 26 games of the regular season are a sprint, coach Michael Malone and his Denver Nuggets better check to see if the Sacramento Kings left the starting blocks early.
Sacramento got off to a fast start in the first half, countered a few minor Nuggets surges in the third quarter, and ran away with a 116-100 victory. The Kings (25-33) closed to within a half-game of the Nuggets (25-32) for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
“They played with a lot more energy than us, they were more physical, they were a lot more aggressive and they completely dominated the game,” Malone said. “I’m disappointed in our effort and performance tonight. Hopefully it’s not a sign of things to come.”
Sacramento led 61-44 at the half and the lead grew to 21 points early in the second half before Wilson Chandler’s jumper cut the lead to 12 at 73-61 with six minutes left in the third quarter. Chandler nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner on the next possession to get the Kings’ lead to single digits at 73-64.
That’s as close as the Nuggets got.
Gary Harris led the Nuggets in scoring with 23 points. Chandler added 18 points and 10 rebounds. Danilo Gallinari, still recovering from a left groin injury, added 15 points but had just four in the second half.
“My groin feels fine, my body feels good,” Gallinari said. “Only thing I’m thinking about is forgetting this game and thinking about tomorrow. We didn’t bring it tonight and they played a perfect game. We have to play a lot better if we want to keep that eight spot.”
Kings backup center Willie Cauley-Stein was just too quick for Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee down low. Cauley-Stein’s spin moves left Jokic flat-footed and defenseless. Cauley-Stein, a second-year player from the University of Kentucky, had 19 points at the half on a 9-of-12 shooting and finished with a career-high 29 points.
“(Cauley-Stein) didn’t feel us,” Malone said. “We didn’t have great execution with our pick-and-roll defense. He got behind us, were weren’t protecting the rim.”
The Nuggets acquired 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert from the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday in exchange for a protected second-round draft pick in 2019. He did not make the trip to Sacramento but is expected to be in Denver for Friday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets. Besides Hibbert clogging the middle of the lane for the Nuggets, Malone was asked before the game if there was anything major he can can do over the last 26 games of the regular season for his team to be better on defense?
“Major? I don’t think so,” Malone said. “We’ve found an identity right now with how well we’re playing offensively. The challenge is, while maintaining that offensive identity, can we improve on the defensive end? Can we go from being the 28th ranked defense in the NBA to being in the top 20 and that’s something we’ll stress with (25) games to go.”
Jokic had just four points for the Nuggets. He did snare 10 rebounds, but Malone was not pleased with Jokic after the game.
“If he wants to be our best player, and a franchise-type player, he’s got to play better,” Malone said. “They went at him in the post and they scored very easily on him. He’s got to respond to that. I believe in Nikola 1,000 percent, but tonight was not one of his better games.”
Jokic said of Cauley-Stein: “He’s fast and he’s athletic. Maybe he surprised us with the way he impacted the game, especially with Cousins gone.”
Buddy Hield and Tyreke Evans, two of the players the Kings got from New Orleans Sunday in a trade for DeMarcus Cousins, combined for 31 points and 10 rebounds. That’s slightly above what Cousins was averaging before being sent to the Pelicans.
“They lost the best center in the league, but other players will step up,” Chandler said before the game. “Lot of teams right behind us made some good moves. Dallas made a good move. New Orleans, obviously. But we don’t know if Sacramento made a good move. I guess we’ll see.”
The Nuggets just have to look over their shoulders to see the Kings, who are now just a half-game behind.
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