Unbelievable as It Sounds, DeMarcus Cousins Could Swing NBA Finals

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IJune 4, 2019

Golden State Warriors' DeMarcus Cousins during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

They say it's lonely at the top. For the Golden State Warriors, that might just be because half the roster has fallen victim to injury.

DeMarcus Cousins had been inactive for much of the season after tearing his Achilles in January 2018 while with the New Orleans Pelicans, but he was healthy and ready when the Warriors needed him most. 

After missing 45 days recovering from a torn left quad suffered in Game 2 of the first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers, he delivered a masterclass in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday versus the Toronto Raptors, scoring 11 points, collecting 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists.

Cousins' impact on the Warriors was never supposed to be about necessity. Golden State is a top-heavy team, and he only added to that. But with Kevin Durant on the sidelines (strained right calf), Kevon Looney out indefinitely (fractured collarbone) and Klay Thompson questionable for Game 3 (left hamstring tightness), Cousins—who is still finding his form—will be more of a featured option.

A big question during the season was whether Cousins would be played off the court in critical games because of his slow-footedness and the Warriors' best lineup excluding him. With the latter a non-issue as a result of those injuries, the Warriors forced Cousins to play his way into shape during the biggest minutes of his life.

And he came through.

"DeMarcus hasn't played much basketball over the course of the last 18 months," Draymond Green said. "Obviously they want to attack him on the defensive end, but you watch the film, he didn't give up much on the defensive end in Game 1."

Cousins is not a noted stopper or rim protector, but he's crafty with his hands and clogs up open space. The Raptors went right ahead trying to expose him as the weakest link, and it worked from time to time.

As the game wore on, he was able to make a few important plays, giving himself confidence and proving not to be the sieve the Raptors had hoped.

He also made a few nice plays off the ball, recognizing unfortuitous matchups to help out his teammates.

The Raptors have used their size advantage all series, overpowering the Warriors to the tune of a 23-0 edge on second-chance points in Game 2. They won the offensive boards category 15-6 Sunday, which is a problem the Warriors need to address, though Cousins did his part on that end.

Without him on the floor, the Warriors grabbed only 47.8 percent of available defensive rebounds. That number jumped to 78.4 percent when he played.

"He was great on both ends as well," Green said. "So it allowed us to play through him some in the post. They got to honor that, or we know what he's capable of if they don't."

Cousins hasn't been called upon to be a primary scoring option during his time with the Warriors, but that will likely change, especially if Thompson misses Game 3. With limited ammunition from their explosive stars, the Warriors won't be able to rely on 18-0 runs to deliver a knockout blow. Instead, they'll set up a slower assault with tons of back cuts, using Cousins as a passer from the low- or mid-post.

Posting up bigs to set up cutters is nothing new for Golden State, and Cousins is a perfect split-action big man. He is a gifted distributor capable of one-handed slick bounce passes to cutters and a cerebral playmaker who will find shooters if the kick-out is the correct read.

If the action is squashed, he can go to work for his own low-post offense.

Having five playmakers on the court has always made the Warriors so dangerous, and Cousins qualifies as such. When he has the ball on the block, he's a threat to score or pass. When he's on the perimeter, he adds another dimension as a shooter from the center position.

Like Green, Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston, Cousins' playmaking is useful in transition. He can function as a de facto point guard, grabbing rebounds and pushing the ball ahead. With the Raptors on their heels, he can find Steph Curry roving for an inch of airspace to set up a patented Warriors run. If Curry's gravity commands too much attention, Cousins will find secondary options wide-open.

Game 3 on Wednesday will be the biggest game of Cousins' career. He met the challenge in Game 2, but the Raptors will be more prepared for him now. Workload will continue to be a talking point for Cousins, who played 28 minutes in Game 2, his second game back. But with Looney on the shelf, Cousins will presumably get the lion's share of minutes at center.

This is all-out time. Jordan Bell and Andrew Bogut will be required to bring production in their elevated minutes, but Cousins will absorb more court time and responsibility to keep the Warriors afloat as they buy time for reinforcements.

"It feels great," Cousins said after the game. "I've leaned on my teammates throughout this moment and throughout this whole process, and this was an incredible moment for me. But I'm not satisfied, and I'm looking forward to Game 3."

       

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