DeMarcus Cousins lived up to the worst parts of his reputation in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday. The Raptors got in his head and never let him get comfortable, attacking him on defense and frustrating him on offense. Cousins was in a tough situation: He was making only his fifth playoff appearance in his NBA career while coming back from two major injuries in 16 months. All the other injuries for Golden State have made his return even harder. No one knows how effective Klay Thompson will be when he comes back from a strained hamstring in Game 4 on Friday, while Kevin Durant may not play at all in the Finals. There is no time to ease Cousins back with Golden State down 2-1. They need to find the right role for him, and he needs to adjust his game to make up for his physical limitations.
The best version of Cousins could create a mismatch against any defender. Before his recent injuries, he was a bowling ball (6-foot-11 and 270 pounds) who could overpower weaker defenders in the paint and take slower ones out to the perimeter and blow past them off the dribble. He doesn’t look like the same player after tearing his Achilles in January 2018 and tearing his quadriceps in the first round of the playoffs. He isn’t anywhere near 100 percent physically. He barely has any lift in his legs, and he has struggled to defend on the perimeter in the pick-and-roll. He needs to change his approach in the Finals on both ends of the floor to make up for being slower and less explosive.
Cousins could learn from his counterpart, Marc Gasol, a 34-year-old who has never been particularly fleet of foot, and doesn’t move as well as he did when he was in his prime. Gasol makes up for his lack of explosiveness by always being in the right position on both ends of the floor. He doesn’t take shortcuts on defense or force the issue on offense. He knows that he’s no longer able to score in traffic, and he has no problem moving the ball if the defense sends help. Cousins, on the other hand, can get in trouble trying to do too much: He has seven turnovers in three games in the Finals. Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka both blocked his shot in Game 3. Cousins has to be more patient. He can’t be the same dominant scorer he was before tearing his Achilles, one of the most devastating injuries in basketball.
Cousins has had terrible injury luck. He was having the best season of his career next to Anthony Davis in New Orleans when he tore his Achilles. Instead of receiving a max contract when he hit free agency in the offseason, Cousins settled for a one-year, $5.3 million deal with Golden State. He didn’t play until January, and was up-and-down in 30 regular-season games with his new team. Cousins was supposed to rebuild his market value in the playoffs, but he tore his quad in Game 2 of their first-round series with the Clippers. He missed the next two rounds before returning to play eight uneventful minutes in their loss in Game 1 of the Finals.
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr looked like a genius when he moved Cousins back into the starting lineup in Game 2. His strong offensive performance (11 points on 3-for-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, and six assists) was one of the keys to their win. Cousins is a bigger threat than any of the more limited players in their center rotation. There aren’t many big men in the league who are as well rounded as him offensively: He can score out of the post, shoot 3s, and distribute the ball. He had impressive regular-season numbers (16.3 points on 48.0 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists on 2.4 turnovers per game) considering his limited role on the team. His passing ability makes him a perfect fit in Kerr’s motion offense, and his willingness to at least take 3s (3.2 per game) creates space even if he’s not a great shooter (27.4 percent). They don’t have many other 3-point shooters in their supporting cast, which allowed Toronto to play a box-and-one on Steph Curry at the end of Game 2.
The Raptors made a point to attack Cousins in Game 3. Gasol went right at him in the post. He doesn’t always look for his own shot, and his lack of aggression in Game 2 (six points on 2-for-7 shooting) allowed Cousins to hide on defense. Gasol came alive in Game 3, with 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds, and four assists. He was just as impressive on defense, bodying up Cousins and not letting him get any clean looks at the basket. Cousins has been more effective in the series when defended by Ibaka: He is shooting 1-for-7 in 55 possessions with Gasol as his primary defender, and 3-for-8 in 40 possessions against Ibaka.
Gasol, one of the strongest and savviest interior defenders in the league, is a tough matchup for Cousins. He won’t allow Cousins to carve out deep position in the post and power through him, and he’s almost never in the wrong place on defense. Gasol has slowed down a lot of talented big men in the playoffs. He held Nikola Vucevic to 13-for-39 shooting from the field (33.3 percent) in 191 possessions as his primary defender in a first-round victory over Orlando, and he held Joel Embiid to 22-for-62 shooting (35.5 percent) in 328 possessions as his primary defender in a second-round victory over Philadelphia.
The good news for the Warriors is they don’t need Cousins to dominate Gasol. They just need him to play like he did in Game 2. He filled two important roles in their offense: He spaced the floor with the starters and was one of the primary options on the second unit. They don’t have anyone else who can fill either role. Kevon Looney, their most effective center in the playoffs, is out after breaking his collarbone in Game 2. Jordan Bell, who started in Game 1, has never fully earned the trust of the coaching staff, while Andrew Bogut, whom they signed out of Australia a few months ago, isn’t a threat to score outside of catching lobs at this stage of his career. The lack of consistency from their big men would not be that big of a deal if they could lean on the Lineup of Death with Draymond Green at the 5, but all of the injuries on the wings have forced them to play bigger lineups.
But Kerr can’t afford to have much patience with Cousins in Game 4. He had a net rating of minus-12 in 19 minutes in Game 3. It wasn’t just his lack of offensive production. Cousins complained to the referees instead of getting back on defense, and he was often out of position in the half court. His pick-and-roll defense will always be an issue, but he can’t make it worse by gambling and picking up cheap fouls. Thompson’s return will give Kerr more lineup options if he wants to go smaller. Giving more opportunities to players like Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook might be a better option if Cousins struggles like he did in Game 3. They may not have a choice if Toronto downsizes and plays Pascal Siakam at the 5.
The Finals are a moment of truth for Cousins, an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The goal was never for him to return to Golden State. They are only allowed to offer him up to a 120 percent raise on his current salary, even if Durant walks. The problem is he may not have many better options. It’s hard to find a team that will be willing to give him a massive long-term contract this offseason when he hasn’t shown that he can stay healthy. No contender will restructure its offense to feature Cousins, and no rebuilding team will want to commit to building around an injury-prone big man who turns 29 in August. Cousins might be forced to sign another one-year contract next season, except for a far worse team than the Warriors.
He can still be valuable in the right situation. Gasol is proof that an older and less mobile 7-footer can play a key role on a championship contender. The Raptors surround him with length and athleticism, and they know how to cover for him on defense to prevent opposing teams from exploiting his lack of quickness. A fully healthy version of the Warriors may have been able to expose him like they did in 2015, but that team may no longer exist. Cousins could thrive in a role similar to Gasol, but it will require him to swallow his pride. He may not get another chance to be a primary option in the NBA, and he may never get back the speed he lost when he tore his Achilles. Elton Brand and Kobe Bryant were never the same players after their injuries. Even his former teammate Rudy Gay, one of the few to make a full recovery, has had to transition into a smaller role on offense.
Cousins would have had to make the transition at some point, though, even if he hadn’t been injured. He’s a bigger center who has put a lot of miles on his body in nine NBA seasons. He was going to slow down as he moved deeper into his 30s. Cousins has the tools to thrive as he does. Like Gasol, he’s a high-IQ player who can score from all over the floor and create open shots for his teammates. His problem has always been channeling his gifts without letting opposing teams get under his skin and force him off his game. Cousins is still young enough to have a great second act to his career. The Warriors need it to start in Game 4.