Pelicans Kings Basketball

New Orleans Pelicans forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, goes to the basket against Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Rich Pedroncelli

A four-deep throng of reporters, cameras and photographers encircled DeMarcus Cousins’ locker late Thursday night.

The story was too good to miss.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ center had just completed a triumphant return to Sacramento, piling up a gaudy 41-point, 23-rebound, six-assist stat line against his former team. That collection of statistics hadn’t been achieved in a single game since 2001 and came on a night when the spotlight was already firmly affixed to Cousins, thanks to a standing ovation from Kings fans and a tribute video recounting his days in California.

And without Anthony Davis (left knee injury) at his side, Cousins, in many ways, carried his Pelicans to a stirring 114-106 victory. New Orleans erased a 19-point deficit in the process, concluding its three-game West Coast road trip with a flourish and a 2-1 record.

While Cousins’ story and figures were worthy of the attention, the root of the Pelicans’ victory went beyond his numbers.

After a dreadful start, New Orleans rallied defensively and cranked up its offensive efficiency, turning a game that appeared headed toward disaster into a blueprint for future success.

“Just staying poised,” Cousins said. “We knew it would come to a point where they ran out of gas, and we knew that would be our chance to make a push. Once we cut it to around 13, we knew we had them. Once the game went our way, them being young guys, not to discredit them or anything, but they don’t really know how to handle those situations yet. We knew we could get them.”

That strategy may not be successful in New Orleans' next matchup.

The Pelicans host the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Smoothie King Center at 7 p.m. Saturday. And if New Orleans opens the way it did in Sacramento, the deficit may be too large to overcome against the likes of LeBron James.

On Thursday, the Pelicans surrendered 40 points in the first quarter alone, part of the King’s 70-point first half. Then, New Orleans squeezed defensively, allowing just 36 points and 35.1 percent shooting in the final two quarters.

“We did a much better job of getting over the screens,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry responded when asked to diagnose the defensive about-face after halftime. “We did a much better job of locking in. We did a much better job on individual defense and not getting broken down and having guys drive to the basket.

“I thought overall, we did a good job. This is one of the best offensive rebounding teams there is, and I thought we did a great job of not letting them shoot it and then go back and get it.”

In fact, the Pelicans didn’t allow a single offensive rebound in the second half, thanks largely to Cousins, who finished 11 Kings possessions on his own. It was a sign of progress after the Pelicans watched three early leads evaporate under the pressure of late-game situations during the first two weeks of the season.

Limiting transition opportunities also allowed the Pelicans to stabilize defensively. They surrendered just four turnovers in the second half after committing 11 in the first half.

“Just glad to get a win, honestly,” Cousins said. “We had a chance to win our previous game (in Portland, and) we kind of fumbled it down the stretch and ran into the same type of situation (Thursday). I think we grew from our last game.

“We stayed sound. We stayed poised. We pulled out a tough win in a tough environment. Credit to our team for that.”