SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Playing behind All-Star DeMarcus Cousins the past two years, Willie Cauley-Stein has been patiently waiting for his chance with the Sacramento Kings.
When he got the opportunity for extended playing time, he came through in a big way.
Cauley-Stein had a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds to help the Kings, playing for the first time since trading Cousins, beat the Denver Nuggets 116-100 Thursday night.
The Kings made a blockbuster deal Sunday, trading Cousins to New Orleans. The controversial, often petulant star spent seven seasons with the Kings, who haven't had a winning record or made the playoffs since 2005-06.
Although he didn't start the game, the athletic Cauley-Stein was impressive from when he entered. He scored 19 points in the opening half and had eight in the fourth quarter when the Kings never let the lead dip below 12 points.
"There's not that thought in the back of your head, like 'oh dang, he's going to take me out if I make a mistake,' because at this point he's going to have to put me back in," said Cauley-Stein, who made 14 of 22 shots and played a season-high 35 minutes. I was able to play free."
The Kings played free as well, no longer burdened by the on-court antics of Cousins, who was constantly arguing with referees and many times a distraction for teammates.
Newcomers Buddy Hield scored 16 points and Tyreke Evans had 15 for the Kings, and Darren Collison had 15 points and 10 assists. Seldom-used rookie Skal Labissiere had a season-high 12 points and Ben McLemore 10.
"We don't have a superstar presence, so we need everybody to step up and kind of fulfill their role," Collison said. "Everybody needs to chip in one way or another and I thought tonight we did a good job of that."
Gary Harris made five 3-pointers and had 23 points for Denver. Wilson Chandler had 18 points and 10 rebounds, Will Barton scored 16, Danilo Gallinari had 15, and Jameer Nelson 12.
Denver relinquished the lead late in the first quarter and never led again. The Nuggets have lost two straight overall and five of six on the road, where they are 10-19 this season.
"A lot of their guys know they are going to get a chance to play now and they want to prove they can win without DeMarcus," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "I knew (not to take them lightly). They beat Boston without Cousins. They were a lot more aggressive and completely dominated this game."
Their fifth victory in six games moved the Kings within a half-game of Denver for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Nuggets have dropped five straight to the Kings, including two this season.
"We really wanted that win, just not only for the start of the second half, but we have a goal," Cauley-Stein said. "We're trying to make that eighth spot. So that's one down and 24 (games) to go."
Minus Cousins, the Kings are lacking a legitimate go-to player. Yet it didn't seem to matter as the Kings received contributions from numerous players. Eight players scored eight or more points and Kings shot 52 percent. The Nuggets never had an answer defensively, especially against Cauley-Stein.
"He (Cauley-Stein) was a threat. He's a good player and played a good overall game," Gallinari said. "He was rolling to the basket and capitalizing on jump shots, too. He played a good game, but I thought his team played a good game as well."
Typically a struggling first-half team, the Kings shared the ball, hustled at the defensive end, and used 11 unanswered points to take a 61-44 lead into intermission. The Kings outscored Denver 32-18 in the second quarter.
Nuggets: Prior to today's trade deadline, Denver acquired big man Roy Hibbert from the Milwaukee Bucks for a 2019 protected second-round draft pick. Hibbert was not at the game. ... Emmanuel Mudiay (back) has not played since Feb. 4.
Kings: The bench scored a season-high 72 points. .. Acquired from the Pelicans, Langston Galloway did not play.
Rookie gets his chance and delivers
Most of Labissiere's minutes this season have come in the D League, where he's played well and been a double-figure scorer. Entering the contest with 52 minutes in eight games, he was a surprise contributor early against the Nuggets, coming off the bench and scoring eight first-half points.
"I don't know if this will be the outcome every night, but he's a lot closer to being in the lineup and getting regular minutes now," said Malone, who joked that it's unlikely Labissiere would play in Friday's D League game in Sacramento.
Nuggets: Host Brooklyn on Friday night.
Kings: Host Charlotte on Saturday.