It was tough to overlook the youthful Kings after Tyreke Evans scored 22 points and DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points and nine rebounds in Sacramento's 106-101 comeback victory that dropped Oklahoma City to second overall in the NBA.,
It was a difficult start to the season for the Kings, who had a 2-5 record and were a troubled team on and off the court when coach Paul Westphal was fired. The turnaround has been gradual for Sacramento, the youngest team in the NBA. But they have improved under new coach Keith Smart, and the latest victory was their fourth in five games.
''We've improved as a team, we're on the right path now,'' said Cousins, who was clearly unhappy under Westphal. ''We're a lot better than our record (10-16) shows. We've grown so much from the team we used to be.''
That growth surfaced against the Thunder, an experienced team that a year ago lost to the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks the Western Conference finals. It was Oklahoma City that looked like the inexperienced team, committing 23 turnovers, including six in the fourth quarter when it was outscored 30-23. The turnovers led to 28 Sacramento points.
''I thrive on a team that creates high deflections because that gets you on a good level on nights when you're not scoring,'' said Smart, whose team won despite shooting 40 percent. ''Deflections, steals and altered shots can get you in the open court. We have some fabulous guys that can get out into the open court and make plays.''
The Kings didn't make a field goal in the final two minutes, but still kept the sellout crowd that was dressed primarily in black, matching the Kings' uniforms, roaring with approval. Sacramento's final nine points came on free throws.
Russell Westbrook scored 33 points, but also committed seven turnovers. Kevin Durant added 27 points for Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City, at 20-6 a game behind Chicago for the overall lead.
''We had a good lead and in the last five or six minutes we've been good all season,'' Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. ''But the turnovers hit us tonight. We played with good effort, but we didn't play with a controlled effort.''
Marcus Thornton fouled out late in the game with 15 points for Sacramento. Jason Thompson had 11 points and 10 rebounds, and Donte Greene scored 10.
Struggling for three quarters, the streak-shooting Thornton found his stroke in the fourth. He scored 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers that came at big moments.
''I wasn't having a very good game, but I made shots when they counted, that's what I've done my whole career,'' Thornton said. ''I was trying to get myself going in the fourth quarter and try to make some shots and turn the game around.''
James Harden scored 17 points for the Thunder, 11-5 on the road. Serge Ibaka tied his career high with 10 blocked shots and added nine rebounds. His block total was one short of the Sacramento arena record of 11 set by David Robinson of San Antonio. The Thunder had a franchise-record 17 blocks in the game.
''It was just frustrating to lose because Serge had a great game tonight,'' Durant said. ''He was closing up the rim, in the paint and we couldn't close it out for him. It was a tough loss, but we have to move on. We have a game tomorrow (in Utah) and we can't harp on this one.''
After Westbrook's jumper gave Oklahoma City a one-point lead, Green made two free throws and Evans added another, giving the Kings a 101-99 lead. Durant missed a jumper, and Cousins was fouled after securing the rebound. Cousins made two free throws to give Sacramento a 103-99 lead with 27.4 seconds left.
Trailing by eight points, the Kings refused to fold late in the fourth. They scored seven straight points, including a three-pointer from Thornton that pulled them to 95-94 with 2:42 left.
Thornton hit another three to tie it at 97-97.
NOTES: The Thunder will conclude their five-game trip Friday night in Utah. ... After a slow first quarter, Westbrook got going in the second, scoring nine points. ... Kings reserve forward Chuck Hayes matched his season high in the opening half, scoring eight points. He failed to score in the second.