It's hard to predict which Sacramento Kings will show up any given night, but the bunch which came to Sleep Train Arena Tuesday looked as energized and motivated as ever, even despite falling from playoff contention. DeMarcus Cousins led a near skeleton-crew sans Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi, Marco Belinellli and Darren Collison as the Kings straight out-hustled and out-muscled Portland throughout most of the first period. Mason Plumlee had his hands full trying to contain the 270-pound behemoth to little avail - Cousins gouged the Blazers for 16 points on 7-8 shooting as Sacramento jumped out to as large as an 8-point lead. Terry Stotts even dusted off Chris Kaman in an attempted size counter, but he too was mostly ineffective before exiting after appearing to roll his ankle.
The three-point shot was perhaps Portland's only saving grace - Damian Lillard opened with a straightway triple to start the game and then CJ McCollum drilled two of his own to help keep within reach. Allen Crabbe's dart regained the lead at 27-26 and for the moment the ship appeared to be righted.
End of First: Portland 30, Sacramento 33
McCollum's streak continued into the second, scoring 11 points in a variety of ways to carry most of the scoring load for the Blazers. Just about everyone else struggled, however, particularly Lillard who shot only 2-9 and was a bit careless with the ball in traffic. He had two of Portland's 10 turnovers in the first half and looked frustrated with Rajon Rondo's pesky defense.
Rondo had himself a half, not only playing Lillard well but looking aggressive on offense - he scored 12 along with six assists as the Kings regained the lead and ended the quarter on a 8-2 run heading into the locker room.
Halftime: Portland 51, Sacramento 57
After going scoreless during the first half, Maurice Harkless woke up during the third, canning back-to-back threes to tie the game briefly before back-to-back threes from Rondo - yes, he can shoot now - pulled the Kings ahead again.
Lillard started to get back on track as well, swishing a baseline fadeaway early and then coolly knocking down two wide-open as you'll ever see threes which gave Portland the lead at 74-73. With the first trey, Lillard broke his own franchise record for threes in a season with 819 - finishing the night with an unbelievable 820 makes from downtown.
But the quarter would belong to Harkless, who finished with a brilliant stretch which included a streaking fast-break dunk in the final seconds which gave the Blazers a four-point lead and seized the momentum. Harkless finished the period with 14 points and eight rebounds - 5 offensive - in maybe his best minutes so far this season.
End of Third: Portland 84, Sacramento 80
The Blazers grew its lead as large as eight on McCollum's free throws, but yet again Sacramento showed its resolve and battled back to trail by just three.
The turning point seemed to come with just over five minutes remaining - in a bonehead move heading into a timeout, Cousins seemed to take exception to Gerald Henderson and shoved him in plain sight of the official, earning his 17th technical on the season - more importantly, Portland gained an important free point in a tight contest.
Perhaps the only thing more Kings basketball than that would come just minutes later, as a member of the Sacramento bench appeared to inadvertently touch a live ball as the Blazers attempted to inbound - earning another tech. When the dust settled, Portland had only preserved its 3-point lead, but it would be enough to hold on.
The Blazers were led by CJ McCollum (30 points, 3 assists, 2 steals), Maurice Harkless (20 points, 16 rebounds, 2 steals - virtually all in the second half) and Damian Lillard (22 points, 8 assists.).
The Kings were led by Boogie Cousins (30 points, 9 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo's triple-double (27 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds).
The Blazers return to the Moda Center for the second half of a back-to-back Wednesday to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder - tip is set for 7 p.m. Stay tuned to Blazer's Edge tonight, for extended analysis of this game from Dave Deckard.
-- Ryan Rosback | email@example.com | Twitter