Tyreke Evans’ rookie year as a whole deserves an article on its own, and we’ll likely see it before this series is over. But one week in particular during that magical year stood out to me.
On December 16th, 2009, the Kings were 10-13 facing the Washington Wizards at home. The Wizards were struggling themselves, but they had a veteran team, led by star guard Gilbert Arenas. Arenas and Evans battled back and forth throughout the night, and the end of the game would be no different. The Wizards had chipped away at Sacramento’s lead and with 16.6 seconds left, the Kings were only up 1 and Washington had the ball. Arenas had the ball at the top of the key with the rookie hunched down and focused. As Arenas made his move with about 5 seconds left, Evans stood his ground and deftly poked the ball out of Arenas’ hands, stealing the ball and getting fouled in the process. He knocked down both free throws and effectively sealed the game for Sacramento as Washington’s last second three point attempt went awry.
A couple nights later, it was time for more Evans heroics. Sacramento was in Milwaukee facing another Rookie of the Year candidate in Brandon Jennings, as well as one of the best shotblockers in the league, Andrew Bogut. The game was a back and forth affair throughout, featuring 24 lead changes and 11 ties. The largest lead for either team was only 7 points.
Evans had gotten the better of Jennings for the most part, as Jennings struggled to score on the bigger guard and shot just 36.4% from the field. However in the final minute, he was able to get to the line and knock down a couple free throws to give Milwaukee a 93-92 lead. Evans responded by finding Jason Thompson for a quick layup to get the lead right back, and Jennings countered with a seeming dagger pass to Ersan Ilyasova at the rim to make it 95-94 Bucks with just 5 seconds left.
Coach Paul Westphal called timeout, and everyone in the building knew it was going to Tyreke Evans. It didn’t matter. Evans went straight at the Bucks and danced around Andrew Bogut, and scooped in the game winner off the glass.
Two nights later, the Kings found themselves in a dire situation. We’re used to the Kings digging big holes for themselves (especially these last 16 years) but this time they had outdone themselves. With 8:50 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Chicago Bulls had built a commanding 79-44 lead over the Kings and the situation looked bleak.
But these scrappy young Kings didn’t give up. Throughout the 3rd quarter, they chipped away, and the Bulls got complacent. Evans, who had scored just 5 points in the first half, kept attacking the rim. Maybe it was just the magic of the moment but the rest of the team bought in as well. Donte Greene started making shots. Jon “The Brock Ness Monster” Brockman was pulling down boards over Joakim Noah. The panic was setting in for the Bulls as they watched their lead evaporate. Then Ime Udoka, now the Celtics head coach but then a Kings roleplayer, went off, scoring 10 straight points, including back-to-back threes, to cut the lead to 4 points.
Then, with his teammates having stepped up to the plate, it was back to Evans to finish the job. With 2:13 left, Evans hustled down the floor after yet another Bulls miss and got an and-one layup to cut the lead to just 1 point. Luol Deng got fouled and made 1 of 2 free throws on the other end, but it was Evans back on the attack right after that, getting right to rim before the Bulls could converge and tying the game at 96 with 1:45 left.
The Bulls got sloppy on the other end and Sacramento was able to force a jumpball between the Brockman and Kirk Hinrich. The Kings controlled the tip and went right back to Evans. This time, the Bulls were at least able to foul him before he could get to the basket, but Evans still made his first free throw to take the lead for the Kings for the first time since it had been 5-4 in the first quarter.
Evans’ second free throw, however, was off target, clanging off the rim. The Bulls couldn’t secure the rebound however and there again was Brockman (the unsung hero of the night despite not scoring. He finished a +26 in his nearly 17 minutes of action) with the rebound. This was also at a time when you still got a new 24 seconds off offensive rebounds, so the Kings had time to reset and kill even more time.
Evans, as he had done throughout the game and his entire rookie year, lived at the rim. The Bulls knew this, and started the play by dropping back and daring him to take a jumper from the left wing. Evans pulled up, but hesitated mid-air, kicking it back out to Beno Udrih. Udrih reset, and gave the ball back to Evans at the top of the key. With time winding down, Evans had to make his move quickly. A Brockman screen took out Hinrich, but Luol Deng was right there to deny Evans a path to the basket. So Evans pulled up instead, shooting a tough fading pull-up jumper over Deng’s outstretched arms.
The rest of the final minute was basically a free throw contest, but the Kings never relinquished their well-earned lead, and came away with what was and still is the 2nd largest comeback in NBA history to cap off a magical week. The full run is over on YouTube if you have 50 minutes to spare, but here’s the condensed version:
After that game, the Kings were 13-14 and had the most exciting young player in the NBA. Anything and everything felt possible.