'One down, 24 to go.' Cauley-Stein pushing Kings toward playoffs
Don’t believe the hype — even if the hype is coming from your good friends.
Willie Cauley-Stein was hearing plenty of it since DeMarcus Cousins was traded.
Now was his time to shine. With the three-time All-Star now in New Orleans, Cauley-Stein could display all the skills he’s said he would, if given the opportunity.
“Talking to my people they were like ‘It’s yours, it’s yours’” the former University of Kentucky star said.
But even Cauley-Stein didn’t expect what happened.
The second-year center came off the bench to score a career-high 29 points and grab 10 rebounds as the Kings defeated the Denver Nuggets 116-100 Thursday night at Golden 1 Center.
For one night, the Kings’ trade of Cousins wasn’t the butt of jokes as Cauley-Stein, one of two centers drafted while Cousins was still on the roster, looked more than capable of helping fill the void left in the middle.
The Kings (25-33) also moved within a half-game of Denver (25-32) for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Still, Cauley-Stein as an offensive force wasn’t exactly the plan.
“I didn’t come in here to score damn near 30,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just come in here, just play hard, shoot the shots I get and play to the best of my ability and God willing, it happened tonight. Hopefully I can keep on that every game and find that zone, that zen, to put me in.”
Cauley-Stein shot 14 of 22 in 35 minutes. He scored 19 points in the first half to help the Kings pull away for a 61-44 halftime lead.
“Willie finished everything at the rim,” said Kings Coach Dave Joerger. “... Willie just had a fantastic game, and his confidence was sky high — made a couple jumpers, too.”
Really, Cauley-Stein’s confidence has been high for over a month as his playing time has increased.
He’ll just play a lot more with Cousins gone and Kosta Koufos the only other center with significant experience on the roster.
Cauley-Stein is relaxed, knowing he’ll play plenty, and he’s planning to be the high-energy center the Kings need as they play at a faster pace to stay out of halfcourt situations.
This is the Cauley-Stein the Kings hoped for when he was drafted in 2015.
“I said it when I first got here, I’m trying to be that player,” Cauley-Stein said. “And you have to go 35 minutes intense, so that’s my goal. I’m going hard whenever I’m in there and whatever happens, happens. As long as I’m going hard, you can’t be mad at yourself.”
The Nuggets have struggled on defense all season, and Cauley-Stein feasted against their frontline. Cauley-Stein’s energy helped the Kings shake off an early 19-11 deficit and take control of the game in the second quarter.
“He didn’t feel us,” said Denver Coach Michael Malone. “We didn’t have great execution with our pick-and-roll defense. He got behind us. We weren’t protecting the rim, it was very easy for him. Give him all the credit — he made some tough shots in the second half.”
Cauley-Stein’s energy was infectious with the reserves. Buddy Hield (16 points) and Tyreke Evans (15 points) both played well in their first game with the Kings this season after coming over in the trade with New Orleans.
Rookie Skal Labissiere, another former Kentucky standout, had a season-high 12 points off the bench for the Kings.
The Kings totaled a season-high 72 bench points.
Darren Collison had a season-high 10 assists along with 15 points for the Kings, who have not abandoned their playoff hopes after the trade with New Orleans.
“We have a goal,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’re trying to make that eighth spot, so that’s one down, 24 to go. We’re trying to bring that kind of intensity every game for the next 24, and that’s all we really focused on.”
But is Cauley-Stein ready to play like he did Thursday on a regular basis? He’s not buying into his own hype just yet.
“I don’t know if I can, but I sure love it,” he said.
Surely, his friends will tell him he can.