Just a couple hours south of one of the sport's most highly anticipated regular season games in history, another contest was tipping off. And that one may have been the best game of the night.
The reigning NBA Eastern and Western Conference Player of the Weeks were set to do battle in Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena on Monday night. Earlier in the day, Charlotte's Kemba Walker and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins were named the player of the week in their respective conferences.
The Hornets began a four-game road trip when they started the night against the Kings. They would have to take on their first opponent without Nicolaus Batum, Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lamb in addition to the usual suspects, Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The talent disparity wasn't completely evident from the opening tip but it quickly showed itself. Charlotte got out to a quick 5-0 lead. They were getting open looks but their action was early on offense. Letting it fly, the Hornets were finding it hard to connect from the outside, or in the paint against Sacramento's superior interior presence. The Kings made six of their first nine shots, quickly turning a 5-0 deficit into a 16-9 lead. The Hornets began a perfect 3-of-3 from the field but went 1-of-21 for the rest of the quarter. Jeremy Lin's lay-up with 7:54 to play in the period was the last first quarter field goal for Charlotte. While the shooting was bad, the defensive breakdowns may have been worse. Missing 15 consecutive shots on the offensive was frustrating, but giving up three dunks on three consecutive possessions was infuriating.
Down 31-16 at the end of one, Charlotte needed a spark. With Kemba's week, you expected it to be him. You were wrong. Troy Daniels provided the jump for the Hornets offense. Daniels checked in and knocked down back-to-back three pointers. Those two shots were part of Charlotte shooting 6-of-10 from the field to start the second quarter. In doing so, Steve Clifford's bunch was able to trim a deficit that had once been as large as 17, to just five early on in the second period.
Reserve guard Brian Roberts as well as an attacking Lin helped the Hornets keep the game close before six Sacramento points in the final 1:30 of the first half gave the Kings a 56-46 lead at halftime.
A 42-point explosion in the third quarter not only firmly let Charlotte back into the game but gave them the lead. The Hornets made their first seven three-point attempts from the field in the period. A combined 28 points between Marvin Williams and Spencer Hawes fueled the surge. Charlotte held an 88-84 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Before the buzzer rang to end the third period, Walker connected on a jumper. He had missed 12 of his first 13 shot attempts on Monday night before sinking that one. The boost into the fourth helped Walker, along with Daniels, an unsung hero, propel the Hornets down the stretch. Walker made four consecutive free throws to put Charlotte up 114-109 with 1:04 to play. Four Sacramento points in the next 30 seconds closed their deficit to just one.
On Charlotte's next possession, Walker drove and the ball went off his leg and out of bounds. The Kings had the ball, down one with just over seven seconds left. Cousins was fouled on the ensuing inbound play, sinking both of his free throws to give Sacramento the lead. On the other end, with just 0.6 seconds left, Walker was fouled, going to the line for two shots. He made the first and after a bizarre stall, missed the second and the game was destined for overtime.
In the overtime period, it was a blur of Kemba Walker plus the Hornets usual effort and persistence with a mix of Cousins domination. Dating back to the fourth quarter, Boogie scored 19 of a 23-point Sacramento stretch. The fourth ended in dueling Walker-Cousins free throws and overtime gave us a redux. Walker put Charlotte up two with 33 seconds to play then Cousins tied it with a pair just eight seconds later. Both teams were unable to get off clean looks on their final possessions in the first overtime, sending the game to a second period of free basketball.
Just 90 seconds into the second overtime, Cousins fouled out after throwing a soft elbow following an offensive rebound. Charlotte had trouble taking advantage of this huge break as they were caught in a stretch of 10 consecutive missed shots from the field. As tired teams swung at each other back and forth, the game grew ugly.
There were three field goals made in the entire second overtime - two of them by Troy Daniels. He tied the game on a finger roll with 1:15 to play. Following a Kaminsky miss, fellow rookie Willie Cauley-Stein slammed one home to put Sacramento up two with 12 seconds left. With nine seconds on the clock, Lin threw a low inbounds pass to Daniels. He clutched the ball at his ankles and rose for a deep, 30-foot three-pointer. It sunk and put Charlotte up one, making him Monday's hero.
Weeks ago in Charlotte, the Hornets overcame a 17-point deficit entering the fourth quarter against Sacramento. This time around, Clifford's group surpassed a 17-point deficit they faced in the early moments of tonight's game.
Daniels led the way with a career-high 28 points, including eight three-pointers. Walker, Lin and Williams all scored 20+ points in tonight's contest. Lin tallied a double-double with 20 points and 11 assists.
What a way to start a road trip. Charlotte will play in Utah on Wednesday night.