How a players-only meeting sparked Kings’ big win against conference-leading Timberwolves

The Sacramento Kings didn’t fly to Minneapolis immediately after their blowout loss Wednesday night in Denver. They stayed in Colorado and flew to the Twin Cities on Thursday so they could ensure another good night’s sleep ahead of Friday’s big game against the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves.

But before their two-hour flight in the afternoon, they had a 35-minute players-only meeting. It was their first as a group since Mike Brown became head coach last season.

“We had a team meeting to talk about (how) we have to take this s--- seriously because we got 23 games left now,” Kings guard Malik Monk said after Friday’s game. “The coaches are going to say what they’re going to say, but we’re out they’re playing.

“We knew we had to come together and outwork somebody.”

The result of that meeting was arguably Sacramento’s biggest win of the season as the Kings outworked a team with the second-best record in the NBA.

The 124-120 overtime win against the Timberwolves came on the back of Monk’s season-high 39 points, including 35 after halftime, with leading scorer De’Aaron Fox sidelined due to injury. It ended a two-game losing streak while the Kings had been slumping amid a group of Western Conference teams separated by less than two games. Only two of those teams will secure automatic playoff berths to avoid the play-in.

In a celebratory locker room, Kings players were reluctant to say who spoke and what messages were conveyed during the meeting. But Brown was thrilled about the development, not only because it led to a much-needed victory but because it meant the players were taking accountability in a way he had been preaching since the Kings fell to the Warriors in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

“I freaking love it,” Brown said. “This is me, I’ve been talking internally to our front office, to our coaches, and even to our team, (saying) ‘We won’t reach the heights we can reach until you guys take ownership.’ As a head coach, you can push and carry the group only so far. There’s gotta be a point in time to where it comes from within.

“And they talked to one another, and they held each other accountable, and they take ownership in whatever the heck was going on in front of them. And so, for them to have that for the first time, man, I actually went out and had a drink last night.”

The Kings’ win over the Timberwolves came after a frustrating loss Wednesday in Denver, where they were outscored by 35 points in the second and third quarters. There were defensive breakdowns and the offense hit a rough patch against the defending-champion Nuggets. It was the second consecutive loss following Monday’s game against the Miami Heat. In that game, the Kings were outworked by a team that is threaded with playoff experience.

“I think a large part of it is just getting on the same page,” Kings guard Kevin Huerter said. “I think it was a time for us players to talk about and take ownership of what we’re doing. Talk about things that we think are successful for us and have been happening on the court, things that aren’t — and just do it in a setting away from the coaches so we can talk about it. So it was productive.”

Added Davion Mitchell: “We were saying that we just got to come together. We can’t just lay down when teams go on runs. We can’t just put our heads down when we’re not scoring the ball. We just got to play harder.”

This Kings season has been defined by inconsistency. They beat the Nuggets in their last game before the All-Star break for the third straight time — but they also have losses on their home floor to teams in the cellar, including the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets.

Without Fox, their leading scorer, the Kings needed a complete team performance. It didn’t hurt that Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards left at halftime due to a personal matter.

They got the complete performance with Monk handling the scoring, Fox’s replacements stepping up in substantial ways and multiple players working to prevent Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert from dominating the game against Sacramento’s smaller roster.

Harrison Barnes played solid defense against the much bigger Towns while scoring 14 points. Keegan Murray added 17 points and two steals. The Kings scored 20 points off Minnesota turnovers, a 19-0 advantage in fastbreak points and 14 more points in the paint despite facing the biggest front line in the league.

The Kings held the Wolves scoreless over the final 2:51 of overtime.

“I thought or level of physicality really showed tonight,” Brown said. “One way to show that, there were 11 50-50 balls, and we came up with eight of them. For us, that’s huge.”

Keon Ellis got the start at point guard and earned the defensive player of the game crown while registering a career-high four steals and a block. Davion Mitchell came off the bench to score 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Both players have had inconsistent seasons and have had spells where they fell out of the rotation.

But it was telling that, without Fox, veteran point guard Mike Conley finished minus-22 in his 35-plus minutes on the floor.

“(Ellis) came out and he set the tone for us,” Mitchell said. “For us to win this game — throughout the whole game, his pressure defensively, we all kind of picked it up from him.”

With the win, the Kings improved to 34-25 and moved from the No. 8 seed to No. 7. Through March 1 last season, they were 36-25 and sat in the third seed in the West.

The difference? The conference is much stronger and healthier than a season ago, which has the Kings feeling vastly different than last year despite the record appearing similar.

“I think externally it feels different,” Huerter said. “Last year, we were the darling of the NBA and anything we did, everybody was loving. It was positive. This year, with expectations and the West being better, we’re kind of in a similar spot (record wise), but it just feels different. We’re grinding, scratching and clawing every game. And we need to. It feels like there’s been a lot of times this year when we’ve had big wins and this feels like a big win right now.

“It kind of tells you how the season has gone. We’re needing every one.”