1. Kings Sink Lower Without Troubled Big Man
PORTLAND, Ore. -- DeMarcus Cousins never made it to Portland on Wednesday. The rest of his Sacramento Kings teammates got run out of the Rose Garden. With their leading scorer back home in Sacramento, the Kings were blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers 109-91, tying the Blazers' largest margin of victory this season.
Two days after Cousins' "indefinite" suspension for unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team was lifted, he did not travel with the team. Sacramento coach Keith Smart indicated before the game that Cousins' reinstatement did not automatically mean his return to the lineup.
"I just made the decision," said Smart. "We'll get back and he'll prepare to start playing. I wanted him to be back around the team and eventually start playing."
When Sacramento earned a rare win -- one of just two in the team's last nine games -- over these same Blazers on Sunday at home during the one game Cousins missed, it sparked the inevitable talk that the Kings are better off without him. That doesn't match up with the overall results during the five games Cousins has missed this season due to a variety of suspensions. Sacramento is 1-4 in those games.
Over the course of the season, the Kings have been better with Cousins on the bench. However, that's almost entirely the result of him playing opposite defensive savant Chuck Hayes, his backup at center. Smart can only extend Hayes' minutes so much with Cousins out of the lineup, forcing him to rely on small-ball lineups. Sacramento has started a front line of forwards James Johnson and Jason Thompson in Cousins' absence.
The smaller group can space the floor on offense and has shared the ball effectively, which led to hot shooting in Sunday's win. The bill came due Wednesday night at the other end of the court, where Portland pounded the ball inside to big men LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. The two players combined for 45 points and 26 rebounds and both recorded double-doubles -- the ninth consecutive for Hickson, who was cast off by the Kings in March and claimed off waivers by the Blazers.
In general, Portland owned the painted area. The Blazers collected nearly half their own misses and scored 27 second-chance points. Those easy buckets fueled a 50-36 advantage in points in the paint. In addition to the scores from the big men, rookie Will Barton also took advantage of the lane to the rim to score a career-high 14 points. Sacramento could stay in the game with hot outside shooting for a quarter, but overcoming Portland's paint dominance was too much to ask of a short-handed group also playing without guard Tyreke Evans, the Kings' second-leading scorer.
"Especially with our two big guys out, there's not a lot of margin for error," said guard Isaiah Thomas. "We've got to really focus in on all times and do the little things."
Without Cousins, Smart has few alternatives to small ball on a roster featuring just four true big men. Lottery pick Thomas Robinson still looks lost much of the time two months into his transition to the NBA, and tweener forward Travis Outlaw poses the same defensive issues as Johnson without the athletic upside.
Fortunately for Sacramento, Cousins' return is near. "We'll get a practice [Thursday] and incorporate DeMarcus back into our basketball team and start getting ready for the next game," Smart said after the game, although he made no promises that Cousins would play Friday against the New York Knicks at Sleep Train Arena. His most definitive statement? "We'll see once I get back in town."
The Kings aren't a very good team right now no matter who's on the court. The team's play without Cousins is most relevant as ownership and president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie consider possibly dealing their troublesome star prior to the trade deadline, a task already complicated by the difficulty of finding a partner willing to offer value for Cousins. To stay afloat the rest of the season and balance the roster, Sacramento would need to get frontcourt help as part of the return package. (Take note, maestros of the Trade Machine.)
If the Kings want to avoid more ugly outcomes like Wednesday's, trading Cousins won't be a simple task.
Kevin Pelton is an author for Basketball Prospectus and a contributor to ESPN Insider.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James. He finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and four steals. LeBron's first four field goals of the game were all dunks and his four steals came after the first quarter. Charlotte tightened up and over-helped like crazy on him as the game progressed, but he more or less got his when he wanted.
That was ... a pathetic cheap shot. In the middle of the third quarter Ramon Sessions fouled Dwayne Wade, and Wade proceeded to blatantly throw his leg towards Sessions' midsection. Both teams exchanged pleasantries, but no penalty was ever assessed on Wade. It would seem very possible that Wade hears from the league in some fashion about this.
Defining moment: After Charlotte had clawed all the way back from a 17-point deficit to cut it to two at 84-82 with 6:24 left in the third, LeBron hit a step-back 3 from the corner with the shot clock running out. Miami never really looked back.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Josh Smith was incredible, with 31 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks. Can't leave out Jeff Teague, who scored seven points in the second OT to help ice the win.
X factor: Will Bynum was forcibly keeping the Pistons in the game with 31 points off the bench. He hit lots of big shots to quiet Hawks runs, making it way closer than it should've been. Game doesn't get into OT without his 20 in the fourth.
That was ... horrendous: The Hawks had several chances to win the game in regulation but missed several important free throws. Josh Smith missed two in a row and Al Horford bricked what would've been the game winner. The Hawks have to figure out how to hit free throws ASAP.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks' hard-working forward dealt with both Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace all night. He took his fair share of contact, as the 8-for-8 effort from the stripe would suggest but he battled through and produced 17 points and 11 rebounds, one of his best nights of the season.
LVP: C.J. Watson was given late notice that he'd be starting for Deron Williams, but it seemed like he still hasn't found out. Brooklyn's point guard made about as little impact as possible while Milwaukee's guards both turned in big nights.
That was ... complete: Milwaukee's had their share of wins this season, but rarely have the Bucks had so many players turn in stellar performances. Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Larry Sanders and Ilyasova all had terrific games in an important game against a conference foe.
Recap | Box score
MVP: It was either Bruce Lee or Ben Franklin who said, "Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of." Sourcing aside, Dorell Wright used his time wisely on Wednesday. Enjoying expanded minutes and responsibilities with Jason Richardson out, the marksmen dropped in a season-high 28 on 11 shots. After an erratic start to the year, Wright's hit 18 3-pointers in his last five games.
LVP: In the midst of what most observers agree is a career year, Mike Conley submitted a dud. He was a non-factor as a facilitator for the Grizzlies and shot just 3-of-17 from the floor.
That was ... a good night for finesse big men: Though he managed only six points after the initial quarter, Marc Gasol posted an 18/8/8 line in a losing effort while his philosophically similar, if differently abled, counterpart Spencer Hawes scored 20 points, pulled down nine rebounds, and blocked five shots off the bench for Philly.
Recap | Box score
MVP: James Harden scored 30 points on 11-for-22 shooting. Seventeen of those points came in the fourth quarter. And he shredded the Wolves pick-and-roll defense twice in the last minute to steal the game for the Rockets.
X factor: Neither team shot the ball well but Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves' two best scorers, hit a combined 4 of 21 from the floor -- and neither scored in the second half. Love himself missed two wide-open threes in crunch time that could've sealed the deal for the Wolves.
That was ... dispiriting: Both teams played with a kind of mellow, hungover glaze for much of the game. Almost everyone looked sluggish and fatigued; their combined 33.3 percent shooting was evidence enough of that. In the end, Harden's energy made the difference.
Recap | Box score
MVP: No one really stood out in this game, but Tony Parker's 13 points and seven rebounds were big. His ability to push the pace in the second half really helped open up the Spurs offense and put some separation between them and Toronto.
X factor: The moments have been few and far between thus far this season, but against the Raptors Manu Ginobili looked a lot more like the Ginobili that was one of the more unpredictable players in the NBA. He produced 14 points and five rebounds, and his +23 was the best on the Spurs.
That was ... a little strange: In one of the weirder box score quirks you'll see, none of the Raptors starters cracked double figures in points, but four bench players had at least 10 points.
Recap | Box score
MVP: How lazy was the Lakers' defense tonight? Corey Brewer tied his career-high with 27 points ... in just 24 minutes. Brewer's sharp backdoor cuts and six wide-open 3-pointers ended up putting the sleepwalking Lakers D to bed.
X factor: Second chances. Both teams had reasons to be tired, but the Nuggets looked much fresher, gobbling up 20 offensive rebounds. Don't blame it all on Dwight Howard's second-half ejection -- most of the damage was done well before that.
Well, that was ... pathetic: The Lakers offense was cooking most of the night, but they did absolutely nothing well defensively. They didn't box out, they didn't contest shots, and they didn't really try. Pathetic might actually be too kind.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Stephen Curry started the game hitting back-to-back threes -- and then got fouled shooting a third on the next possession. He finished with 23 points and seven assists.
Defining moment: Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward both dive to save a loose ball, only to throw it away to Curry, who eschews a wide-open lane to instead drain a 3.
X factor: Andris Biedrins had a season-high 12 rebounds in just under 19 minutes for the Warriors. For Jazz fans, reruns of "The X Factor" would have been a better choice than watching this game.
Recap | Box score
Defining moment: After knocking down a game-tying jumper right in the grill of Suns stopper P.J. Tucker, J.R. Smith canned a buzzer-beating jumper in the corner to win the game for the Knicks in dramatic fashion. Smith celebrated with a quick salsa dance.
MVP: Jared Dudley torched the Knicks for a career-high 36 points for the star-less Suns, who had not received a 30-point game since March. Dudley hit 11 of 17 shots and canned two free throws to put the Suns up two with 34 seconds left.
X factor: Role players were forced to step up with the Knicks missing Carmelo Anthony (hyperextended knee) and Ray Felton (sprained finger). The Suns felt that pain in the second half without Goran Dragic, who took a hard tumble on a Smith flagrant foul.
3. Wednesday's Best
Dorell Wright, Sixers: Wright made the most of his chance to start with Jason Richardson on the shelf. Wright dropped 28 points on the Grizzlies in a 99-89 win, connecting on 8 of 11 from the field, and 5 of 8 from long range for the visitors.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Mike Conley, Grizzlies: Missing 14 of his 17 shots was one big reason the Grizzlies lost by double-digits to the visiting Sixers. It was the worst shooting night for the point man shooting 44.5 percent from the field this season.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"You shouldn't get penalized for fouling somebody hard. My intentions was not to hurt anybody. Just a hard foul. Like I said, I've been fouled harder and nothing has happened. You can't put me on a different scale because I'm a strong guy. A foul is a foul."
-- Dwight Howard, who was ejected with 5:02 left in the third quarter. He was called for a flagrant foul 2 when he jammed his hand in Kenneth Faried's face as the Nuggets forward drove the lane.
8. Whose Shot? J.R.'s
9. Stat Check
Kobe Bryant scored 40 points in the Lakers' loss at Denver. It was Bryant's 10th consecutive game with at least 30 points, the second-longest such streak of his career; he scored 30 or more points in 16 straight games in 2002-03. The only other active NBA player ever to score at least 30 points in each of 10 or more consecutive games in one season is LeBron James (10 in a row for the Cavaliers in 2005-06).
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge paced the Blazers with 28 points and 12 boards, starting strong with a variety of attacking moves and not settling for his jump shot as often as he sometimes has this season. One of his strongest performances.
X factor: With DeMarcus Cousins suspended, the Blazers broke character and won the battle for points in the paint en route to perhaps their most balanced offensive game so far. Hickson, Batum, Lillard, Aldridge, and rookie Will Barton all had strong scoring games.
That was ... about how it should have been: While the Kings have, oddly, given the Blazers a lot of trouble this year in two losses, the Blazers exploited a team lacking its two most dynamic talents, as Tyreke Evans also sat. This was a predictably feel-good win for Portland.
MVP: There were several standout performances. Robin Lopez had 29 points on 12 shots to go along with three blocks. Greivis Vasquez finished with a career-high 27 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Jameer Nelson put up 28 points, 10 assists and five rebounds.
Defining moment: Nikola Vucevic missed a game-tying 3-pointer from the right corner with 2.9 seconds left, after J.J. Redick couldn't get a clean look beyond the arc, and the Hornets were able to escape with a victory over the Magic.
That was ... a relief: It must come as a huge relief to New Orleans that it was able to snap its 11-game losing streak by finding a way to win a close game after coming up short in previous games.
MVP: Kyrie Irving stuffed the stat sheet with 26 points, eight assists and six rebounds. The Wizards would have had a comfortable halftime lead if not for Irving, who carried the Cavs' offense, posting 20 first-half points.
LVP: Bradley Beal. The Wizards might have pulled this one out if they had gotten better production from Beal, who went 0-for-5 from the floor with only two points in 21 minutes of action.
X factor: Tristan Thompson. On a night when the Cavs' thin front line got pounded by Nene Hilario and Emeka Okafor, Thompson was Cleveland's port in the storm. His 15 points and 12 boards were essential to their victory.
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