That embarrassing, here-we-go-again feeling was popping up for the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night.
The familiar script was being written against the Chicago Bulls after Sacramento blew big leads against the Knicks (23 points) and Mavericks (19 points) last week during a four-game losing streak.
The Kings on Tuesday, yet again, took a 20-point lead into halftime. They were making extra passes and giving the effort needed on defense for a chance at upsetting the No. 4 seed in the competitive Eastern Conference. The Bulls were scuffling and shooting a miserable 37% from the field and getting out scored by 10 points in each of the first two quarters.
“We had a lot of energy, a lot of ball movement. I thought we were really good defensively. And then, dun dun dun daaah,” head coach Alvin Gentry said, making the dramatic movie sound indicating a plot twist was just revealed.
The twist, of course, was the Kings giving up that big lead just as they had against New York and Dallas — both terrible losses. They came out of the locker room after halftime against Chicago not moving the ball as well, forcing mid-range shots and allowing the Bulls to assert themselves. The Bulls outscored the Kings 34-25 in the third quarter, but they never took the lead.
Sacramento, uncharacteristically, held on for the 112-103 victory at Golden 1 Center despite being outscored after halftime 60-49. Their four-game losing streak snapped against an awfully good Bulls team.
“That third quarter,” center Domantas Sabonis said, “we just can’t find a way to start right now. It’s either we’re missing shots or not getting stops. That definitely hurts us. Today we found a way to stop it early and not get in a very bad position and finish the game.”
That inevitable feeling had a soundtrack. Bulls fans lined the Kings’ home arena like few visiting teams can. Red and black took up roughly 40% of the lower bowl, and Chicago fans made themselves heard throughout their team’s second-half comeback. When the 20-point lead dwindled to 3 points after the Bulls went on a 10-2 run to open the fourth quarter, you could have closed your eyes and smelled the deep-dish pizza.
“When they were making a run, it was loud,” Kings guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “As a team, you’re looking at is as this is our home court. You gotta play even harder. It felt kind of weird because they would score and it would be real loud. Then we would score, and it would be real loud.
“So that energy in there, you know you don’t take it personal. But at the end of the day, we have to defend our home court. So when we go into Chicago, it’s super loud for Chicago. We have to give the Sacramento Kings fans something to be loud for (here). And I think the energy we have as a team is going to allow us to do that going forward.”
DiVincenzo spoke to reporters in Sacramento postgame for the first time since being acquired via trade last month from the Milwaukee Bucks. He made it clear why Kings general manager Monte McNair had been trying to acquire him for years. He says the right things and appears to have the right attitude. He’s an athletic defender the team lacked when Buddy Hield was coming off the bench as the primary scorer for the second unit.
Tangibly, DiVincenzo’s energy and effort was felt on the court Tuesday. He was making his first start with the Kings while Justin Holiday was sidelined. His stat line: 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists in nearly 35 minutes. Not on the stat sheet: good defense against star wing scorers DeMar DeRozan and Zach Levine, who combined to shoot 15-of-35 (42%) and just 2 of 7 from 3-point range. It was a performance that could help him earn the starting job over Holiday.
“Whenever my number’s called, whether it’s coming off the bench or whether it’s starting, for me, I just always got to be ready,” DiVincenzo said. “My mindset is my energy is contagious for this team, and my attitude is contagious for this team.”
The Kings aren’t going anywhere this season. They won’t make the play-in tournament and their postseason drought is going to extend to 16 seasons. The case could be made against any victory at this point in the year because it hurts their chances in the draft lottery, which is the most likely avenue toward landing a star to help bring the team back to the playoffs.
But wins like Tuesday’s over Chicago matter in a more practical way.
The Kings have to learn how to beat good teams if they’re ever going to do it consistently. They have to avoid falling into the same traps that they did against the Knicks and Mavericks — and other games throughout this 25-45 campaign — that led to their blown leads and frustrating losses. They have to learn how to get up from the mat because they’re going to take punch after punch whether they like it or not. The NBA is difficult and winning consistently is impossible without developing the right habits.
On Tuesday, the Kings showed they could. At least for one night. It came from a collective sense of resiliency.
“I think tonight we did a good job in the huddle,” DiVincenzo said. “I think during that losing streak, (it) was not getting down on ourselves and not getting down on each other. I think when we were in the huddle, that energy was positive. We knew that they were going to hit us in the mouth and they were going to make a run. I think when we were positive in the huddle, and we just had to settle down a little bit, then you could feel the energy changing towards us in the end. And we got a couple big stops, a couple big rebounds, and that’s what we need.”
Indeed, the Kings held and won by nine points despite the Bulls hoofing back to make it an 90-89 game. But from 7:28 on, the Kings out scored Chicago 22-14 by getting timely defensive stops and enough scoring to hang on.
“When you come together, when you stay together, during those hard times, it shows a lot,” DiVincenzo said.
The Kings have 12 games left of a forgettable season that, so far, has been highlighted by a fan vomiting courtside, a coaching change and a polarizing trade that sent away a popular budding star in Tyrese Haliburton to acquire another in Sabonis. This season won’t be remembered for a signature win or a playoff berth. There have been too many losses and frustrating moments.
But if that changes next year and the Kings make a playoff run, perhaps the learned down this final stretch of the season — like how not to lose a 20-point lead against an actual playoff team — will serve them well.