SACRAMENTO, Calif. (The Sports Xchange) – Kentucky product Willie Cauley-Stein dropped hints during the Kings’ first practice after the All-Star break that he was ready to assert himself the way a former Wildcats big man used to do for Sacramento.

He didn’t mention that yet another former Kentucky product would be just as impressive Thursday.

Cauley-Stein, the second-year center tasked with replacing the majority of minutes lost when the Kings traded franchise forward and fellow Kentucky product DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans during the All-Star break, scored a career-best 29 points in the team’s first game since the swap, and the Kings rolled the Denver Nuggets 116-100 at the Golden 1 Center.

“As a team, we really wanted that win,” he said. “Not only for the start of the second (half), but you know we have a goal, trying to make that eighth spot (in the Western Conference playoffs). That’s one down.”

The surprise of the contest was the career-high 12 scored by Kings rookie forward Skal Labissiere, picked out of Kentucky by Phoenix with the 28th pick in last June’s draft and dealt to Sacramento.

Cauley-Stein played 35 minutes and also grabbed 10 rebounds, helping Sacramento (25-33) take control by scoring 11 of the Kings’ 32 second-quarter points.

The Kings took a 61-44 lead into halftime and never let Nuggets get closer than 13 points in the second half en route to their fourth consecutive home win and their fifth victory in six games overall.

Sacramento trails Denver (25-32) by a half-game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“I just think everybody came together, and played for each other,” Kings guard Darren Collison said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Collison scored 15 points, but Sacramento’s reserves made the real difference, outscoring Denver’s 72-44. Buddy Hield, acquired from New Orleans with Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway in the Cousins deal, added 16, and Evans had 15.

“Our bigs … did a great job of screening and getting to the rim and finishing around the basket,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Willie just had a fantastic game, and his confidence was sky high.”

Cauley-Stein’s effort may have been the best, but Labassiere’s was eye-opening. The trade of Cousins to New Orleans — where he joined another Kentuckian, Anthony Davis — figures to free up minutes for Labassiere and Cauley-Stein, and Labassiere showed terrific energy in his career-best 14 minutes.

“He’s been working hard,” Collision said. “I’ve seen him out here after games, before games, after practices. He’s a workaholic, and it’s nice to see it pay off.”

Gary Harris scored 23 points to lead the Nuggets, and Wilson Chandler contributed 18 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Nikola Jokic, who finished second in the NBA’s Skills Competition during All-Star weekend, pulled down 10 rebounds but scored just four points.

Denver, which possesses the NBA’s second-most proficient offense, shot just 44.3 percent, including only 40 percent in the first half, and turned over the ball 15 times. After a promising start — Denver led 19-11 in the first quarter — the Nuggets fell apart amid a flurry of bad shooting.

“The close of that first quarter and the second quarter are really what turned the game around,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of an 18-7 Sacramento run to finish the opening period. “And the difference in the game was that their bench dominated. They were a lot more physical. They were a lot more aggressive, and they completely dominated the game.”

The Kings blew open the game with a 15-1 run in the second half and held the Nuggets without a field goal for 4:55 in that period.

Sacramento shot 52.3 percent from the floor overall.

NOTES: The Nuggets acquired C Roy Hibbert from the Milwaukee Bucks before the game in a trade for a 2019 second-round draft pick. Hibbert, 30, didn’t play a minute for the Bucks after being acquired from the Charlotte Hornets earlier this month. He played 42 games with the Hornets, averaging 5.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. … Kings F Arron Afflalo (right hamstring strain) and G Malachi Richardson (right partial hamstring tear) didn’t suit up. Richardson is out three to six weeks, but the Kings haven’t said how much time they expect Affalo to miss. … The Kings started Gs Ty Lawson and Darren Collison, Fs Ben McLemore and Anthony Tolliver and C Kosta Koufos. It was their 14th starting lineup of the season.


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