This game had all the makings for a new chapter of how sad the Bobcats can be in building up a lead and letting it slip out of their hands, but they managed to hold off DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings' late charge to escape with a 95-87 win.
And when I say, "DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings," I really mean that's what it was like for nearly the whole night. Cousins started off hot, trashing Al Jefferson for 4-for-5 shooting in the first quarter in a trend that would continue all night. Few centers have the quickness and agility with that size and level of intuitive scoring. Jefferson might as well have been standing in concrete shoes defending Cousins.
But the other side of this is that the rest of the Kings were absolute garbage in the first half. Credit the Bobcats defense but Sacramento also wasn't implementing much of a fluid offense. At the half, Cousins had 18 points on nine shots with seven rebounds, two assists and three steals. The rest of the Kings shot 25 percent on their field goals. Rudy Gay had one point on four shots.
Offensively for the Cats, Charlotte found things going pretty easily to begin with. The Bobcats had 35 points in the first quarter, led by Gerald Henderson's 12 and a good sprinkling of scoring with Jefferson, Taylor, Zeller and some threes from Kemba Walker and Ben Gordon.
The Bobcats' offense slowed from it's astounding scoring pace in the second quarter but held Sacramento to even worse shooting, leading a larger disparity. Cody Zeller had another awesome dunk taking a pass baseline and pump-faking his defender in the air before a reverse dunk. Ramon Sessions and the crew were getting to the rim and drawing fouls, though they only went 4-for-9 from the line in the period.
Then the Kings went on a little 11-2 run that kind of foreshadowed the third quarter. Quincy Acy cut baseline for an and-1 as the dribble drive penetration drew the defense. The Al Jefferson threw up a kind of running hook shot from the right block that landed on top of the backboard. Jimmer Fredetted followed with a pick and roll that freed him for an open three because Ramon Sessions decided to go under the screen instead of over against the sharpshooter. Jefferson then had another turnover that led to a fastbreak layup and-1, and finished with a killer pentration entry pass under the basket from Fredette for a bucket.
Still, despite letting the Kings cut an 18-point lead to nine rather quickly, they recovered for a 13-point lead at the half.
But the Bobcats came out of halftime looking like they took a nap. They turned the ball over a lot, didn't penetrate on offense and get the inside-out ball movement that spaced the defense before. Defensively, they looked completely unaware: they didn't fight around screens well or move much. They got caught watching the ball, leading to easy cutting layups. Their double-teams came late, which gave up space for the Kings to exploit. DeMarcus Cousins is not only a great scoring threat but a pretty terrific, even if overconfident, passer.
Thankfully, Kemba Walker stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer. The Bobcats surprised me with how well they exploited the corner three all night, especially for as bad a shooting team as they are. Perhaps they read Zach Lowe's excellent piece from today but regardless, they ran a lot of screens and movement and passed to find openings for Jeff Taylor and Walker in the corners.
The defense improved, too. They were more active in knowing their angles and interrupting passing lanes and came quicker with their rotations and double-teams.
Then came the moment of truth with the fourth quarter starting lineup led by Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon in the backcourt. That group of folks has been a spot of weakness all season, stagnating an offense lacking in offensive creativity and effective ball movement and struggling with perimeter defense.
Tonight, I feared the usual. The Bobcats once had an early big lead, and they let it dwindle to six measly points heading into the fourth quarter. DeMarcus Cousins abused pretty much anyone thrown at him (though I would have liked to see some Jeff Adrien on him earlier to see if his physicality would affect Cousins) and it seemed with his effectiveness and Isaiah Thomas' shooting, the Bobcats could find themselves down in the fourth quarter once again.
However, as bad as the Bobcats bench can be, the Kings' bench can be worse. Plus, the Bobcats bench was pretty good tonight! Sessions was better than he has been, getting to the rack and even dishing out some assists. Ben Gordon still sucked, but the Bobcats managed to survive for a few minutes until the starters began returning to the floor.
But even when the starters came back for either team, it didn't exactly change the outlook on the game. Cousins had been destroying the defense and Thomas was starting to find some sort of rhythm. Rudy Gay had left a little earlier after some knee stiffness, so the Kings were shorthanded, but he had still been rather ineffective regardless.
Despite Cousins' earlier outburst, the Bobcats held him and the rest of the Kings to extremely meager returns in the fourth. Cousins and Jason Thompson tied for the most fourth-quarter points for Sacramento, with four apiece. Cousins didn't record a single attempted field goal in the box score in the fourth quarter, though he drew some fouls that helped eventually foul out Al Jefferson.
Facing such a struggling offense, Charlotte didn't need a whole lot of their own to keep Sacramento under their thumb. Al Jefferson hit a shot or two before he fouled out. Gerald Henderson had a sweet floater and jump shot. And then Kemba Walker hit the free throws to close out the game as the Kings tried to extend time for a comeback that would not appear.
I still don't understand why they're playing Ben Gordon the entire fourth quarter again (his entries into the play-by-play are: "Ben Gordon traveling" and "Ben Gordon lost ball out of bounds turnover") but hey, if you can win in spite of the inherent tanking of playing Ben Gordon for more than 15 minutes in 2013, I guess, you're just that good of team.