DeMarcus Cousins could exhale at last. The nerves were long gone, his highly anticipated return to Sacramento in the books – and what a beauty it was.
Cousins immediately scored after winning the opening tip and never stopped on the way to 41 points and 23 rebounds, and the emotional big man dominated his old team to rally the New Orleans Pelicans past the Kings 114-106 on Thursday night.
Cousins took the crowd at Golden 1 Center on a trip down memory lane, then left them with some heartache after a spectacular performance. He waved to his supportive former home fans as highlights showed off his time in California’s capital.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Cousins, who was among Kentucky’s first recruits under Coach John Calipari. “I was super nervous coming in. The anticipation was like through the roof. I really couldn’t wait for the ball to go up and we could just actually get to the basketball part.”
He hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:21 to play for a 108-106 lead and the Pelicans held on – and Cousins finally got some help in a second-half comeback after New Orleans trailed by 14 at intermission playing without injured star Anthony Davis.
Jameer Nelson contributed 18 points with four 3-pointers with Davis sidelined with a left knee injury sustained at Portland on Tuesday. The Pelicans were down 70-56 at halftime with Cousins largely a one-man show already with 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
De’Aaron Fox, the rookie point guard also out of Kentucky, scored 14 points off the bench to lead seven Kings in double figures.
Cousins received overwhelming support and love with a standing ovation during pregame introductions with a few boos. After his initial basket, the Kings answered with a 17-2 run.
A video and highlight tribute to Cousins played on the scoreboard during a first-quarter timeout as he was formally welcomed back to the city where he played seven seasons, and the big man gave a big wave.
“I loved it,” Cousins said. “I’ve got nothing but love for this city. I came here as a kid and left as a man. As I stated many times, I’ve got people here I consider family. These fans have been great to me throughout the years.”
“BOOGIE THANK YOU, LOVE YOU, MISS YOU” read one sign held by a female fan in Golden 1 Center.
“Very talented dude,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said.
Cousins, who was fined $25,000 last week for cursing at a Grizzlies fan in Memphis, shot 14 for 25, dished out six assists and kept his emotions in check.
At the 9:23 mark of the first quarter, Cousins and ex-Cat Willie Cauley-Stein were tied up under the basket. Cousins then carried the ball out of the crowd and set it down in front of the New Orleans bench before the jump ball.
“This was just as big a game for them as it was for us,” Cousins said. “We knew they would be juiced. We knew they would come out swinging and that’s exactly what they did.”
He had faced the Kings once already since his February trade, in New Orleans on March 31, and scored 37 points while making 12 of 21 shots in the Pelicans’ 117-89 victory.
“For him, he came here as a young kid, really. He’d been with this franchise the entire time,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “You have friends in the city, you have things that you’ve done just from a community service point of view that you had. And then very emotional when he left here. I was there when he got on the plane. I think people don’t realize, they look at these guys as something other than a 22- 25- 27-year-old kid, and that’s what they are. I don’t care how big they are, they’ve got the same emotions as everyone else has.
“It’s tough, because it wasn’t his decision to leave. I think when that happens, it stings, it hurts initially. I think he has found himself in a positon where we really appreciate everything he brings to the table.”
Pelicans: Darius Miller started in place of Davis and was scoreless. … After being outrebounded 63-42 in a 103-93 loss at Portland two nights earlier and giving up 18 offensive boards, New Orleans outrebounded Sacramento 47-34.
Kings: As the Kings returned from a three-game road trip, Zach Randolph made his home debut for the Kings after missing the Oct. 18 opener against Houston following oral surgery.
Pelicans: Host Cleveland on Saturday.
Kings: Host Washington on Sunday.