Isaiah Thomas drives past Shane Larkin. (Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)
While Rudy Gay moving to the Sacramento Kings was the headline news of the big seven-player trade agreed to Sunday and completed Monday, the swap also sent Kings starting point guard Greivis Vasquez back east to the Toronto Raptors, elevating Isaiah Thomas — who had been sensational off the Sacramento bench this season — back to the starting lineup. And in his first start of the season against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, the third-year dynamo wasted no time in making Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro and head coach Mike Malone look like they'd made the right choice.
Thomas began the game on fire, scoring 10 points in the first six minutes to push the Kings to an 11-point advantage and imbuing the Sacramento offense with the sort of electricity for which he's become known as one of the league's top reserve scorers and playmakers. By the midway point of the first quarter, he'd canned two 3-pointers, set up a Jason Thompson jumper, darted into the passing lane for a steal that led to a runout layup, and blown past Dallas point guard Jose Calderon on this quick little hesitation move:
(It's also always nice when the help defense actually hurts.)
The 24-year-old Washington product showed there was more to his game than bursting to the rim and pulling up from long-distance, though — check out this second-quarter contest of an attempted dunk by Mavericks center Bernard James:
There's some dispute as to whether or not Thomas actually got his hand on the shot to block it — the official box score didn't credit him with a rejection, for what it's worth — but we're still talking about a 5-foot-9 point guard getting up to credibly disrupt a 6-foot-10 center at the rim and save two points, which is pretty impressive.
Likewise impressive: This third-quarter step-past-half-court alley-oop to Derrick Williams:
Thomas and Williams weren't done linking up, though, and saved their best for last:
When it was all said and done, Thomas finished with 24 points on 7 for 16 shooting (including a 4 for 6 mark from 3-point range) and a career-high 12 assists against just two turnovers in 38 minutes to help push the Kings to a 112-97 home win over the Mavericks on Monday. He assisted on 12 of Williams' career-high 31 points (with five rebounds and five steals), and on six of Cousins' game-high 32 points (with 19 rebounds, three assists and three steals). The Kings outscored the Mavericks by 33 points with Thomas on the floor on Monday, looking faster, more explosive and more dangerous with Thomas at the controls.
“I think I just set the tone at the beginning of the game,” Thomas said after the game, according to Cowbell Kingdom. ”Just to come out aggressive. Guys were making shots. We were getting stops and getting out and running. I think that’s when we’re at our best when we get stops and get out in transition and get easy baskets.”
Sacramento outscored Dallas 23-5 on the fast break, much of that due to Thomas pushing the pace.
"That’s how Isaiah goes," Cousins said. "He brings energy to the game and he speeds it up a lot more. But with a team like the Mavericks, we have an advantage of running against them so we took advantage of that and it went well."
An apt overall description of Thomas' return to the starting lineup, an opportunity for which the point guard sounded pretty grateful to coach Malone.
"If he wants me to mop the floors after the game, I'm going to do that, too," Thomas said.
For the time being, the Kings will probably be happy enough with Thomas mopping the floor with the competition — especially when sharing the floor with Cousins. The Kings have bested the opposition by 13.6 points per 100 possessions with that duo on the floor this season, according to NBA.com's lineup data, scoring at a rate that outstrips even the Portland Trail Blazers' league-leading offense.
“That little Isaiah and DeMarcus Cousins are a handful — that’s a hell of a duo right there," Mavericks forward Shawn Marion said, according to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.
The duo is about to become a three-piece, though, with Gay (and fellow new Kings Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray) likely to be available for Wednesday's meeting with the Utah Jazz. The addition of Gay, a ball-dominating wing player who finished more than 30 percent of the Toronto Raptors' possessions with either a field-goal attempt, a foul drawn or a turnover, will almost certainly mean a redistribution of touches and shots in the Sacramento offense; how big a bite Rudy takes out of Cousins' and Thomas' looks remains to be seen, but an adjustment period (to put it mildly) is coming.
How the Kings handle that adjustment remains to be seen, but with D'Alessandro at the helm and tasked with overhauling a long-scuffling franchise, it seems that change is just about the only constant in Sacramento right now.
“If you don’t embrace change, it’s going to be how many years of the same old thing,” D’Alessandro said, according to Jones. “ ... When you work on a team that had 57 wins (in Denver last season), it’s different. You tweak it; you can take out a piece; you plug in a piece; the machine runs. We’re trying to build the machine.”
On Monday, at least, it seemed like he might have found that machine's power source in a 5-foot-9 jitterbug who's come an awful long way since being tabbed with the final pick of the 2011 draft.
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