DeMarcus Cousins couldn’t put a number on it, really. Asked by a reporter late Sunday about how close he is to 100 percent seven weeks after tearing his left quadriceps—and 16 months after rupturing his left Achilles tendon—Cousins answered the only way he could: with no answer at all.
“I really don’t know,” he said as he sat, posted up alongside Stephen Curry, on the podium in the bowels of Scotiabank Arena after helping the Warriors beat the Raptors 109-104 in Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Then he paused and, for emphasis or comedic effect, repeated himself: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
That’s fitting. There’s a lot we don’t know at this stage of the Finals, a series tied at one game apiece. The Raptors roared in Game 1, but the Warriors broke back on Sunday and will bring home-court advantage to the Bay for games 3 and 4. (That’s now 23 straight playoff series in which Golden State has won a game on the road, by the way, extending one of the more bananas records in NBA postseason history.)
We don’t know how badly Klay Thompson is hurt after straining his left hamstring on a nasty fall after a midair collision with Danny Green early in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Ditto for Kevon Looney, who sat out the whole second half of Game 2 after Kawhi Leonard exploded through him at the basket; one report called it a sprained collarbone, the Warriors called it a chest contusion, and coach Steve Kerr called it “something with his shoulder.” Pending further testing Monday, both players say they think they’ll be able to play in Game 3, but that might just be the adrenaline talking; as Kerr said after the game, “Klay could be half-dead, and he would say he would be fine.”
Andre Iguodala started after hurting his left leg late in Game 1 and eventually hit the game-icing 3-pointer, but the more hits he takes—and he took a doozy in the second quarter on Sunday, getting laid out on a blind screen by Marc Gasol that sent him back to the locker room—the harder it is to know how spry he’ll be for the balance of the series. (ESPN’s Rachel Nichols also reported that Iguodala was “significantly limping around the Warriors’ locker room” after Game 2.) And then there’s the big one: We’re still in the dark on the status of Kevin Durant, this postseason’s leading scorer, who we think will return from a left calf strain at some point in the next couple of games, but only if he can get cleared to practice.
Add up all we don’t know about the state of the Warriors, and something becomes apparent: Cousins suddenly matters a hell of a lot to Golden State’s chances of taking down Toronto and winning a third consecutive NBA championship.
It didn’t necessarily seem like that would be the case during Game 1, which saw Cousins return to the rotation to mixed results—three points, two assists, two steals, and a turnover in eight minutes of work during which he looked a step slow on defense and a touch tentative on offense. And yet, after Jordan Bell was largely ineffective in his Game 1 start, Kerr tapped Cousins to open Game 2, giving the four-time All-Star his first Finals start in just his fourth career playoff appearance. (Cousins’s reaction to the news? “I was just, like, ‘Cool.’”)
Cousins opened Game 2 aggressively on Gasol, defending the Toronto center far out above the 3-point arc, and competed when the Raptors repeatedly targeted him in the pick-and-roll. But he still appeared to be moving in slow motion on both ends of the floor. The face-up dribble moves he’s used to dominate overmatched defenders for years looked overly deliberate, lacking self-assurance. His defensive rotations and slides seemed labored, uncertain.
As the game wore on, though, Cousins warmed up. He began bulldozing his way to the foul line. He stepped into and splashed a 3. He started moving better on defense, cutting a more imposing figure in the lane.
“DeMarcus hasn’t played much basketball over the course of the last 18 months,” Draymond Green said after the game. “So the more he plays, the better feel he gets.”
And then, after halftime, it all started to click.
Cousins threaded the needle to hit cutters with touch passes over the top of the defense and low bounce-pass feeds in traffic. (Those dimes were part of the Warriors’ overall passing clinic in the second half, during which they logged a direct assist on all 22 of their made field goals.) He slipped screens and maneuvered through tight spaces to get to the basket without charging. He timed his help rotations to deter drivers and protect the rim. He played a vital role in the 18-0 third-quarter run that completely changed the game and made key plays in the fourth to ward off Toronto’s runs.
“He was special,” Curry said.
He wasn’t quite full-bore All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, but he was more akin to the version we saw just after he returned to the court from Achilles rehab—the one who’d begun developing two-man-game chemistry with Klay, who added a different playmaking dimension to Golden State’s offense and who held his own well enough on defense to stay on the floor. With Looney ruled out and Bell bumped in the rotation and replaced by spot-minutes solution Andrew Bogut, the Warriors needed more from Cousins. He provided it, chipping in 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks in 27 minutes and 37 seconds of work, during which Golden State outscored the Raptors by 12 points.
“He was great,” Kerr said. “We came in thinking, ‘All right, he can maybe play 20 minutes,’ and he gave us almost 28. There was only one time in the game when he needed a rest, which was mid-fourth, and we gave him a couple minutes and then got him back in the game. But he was fantastic and we needed everything he gave out there—his rebounding, his toughness, his physical presence, getting the ball in the paint, and just playing big, like he does. We needed all of that.”
Cousins needed it, too. After such a challenging year—from the Achilles tear that scuttled a maximum-salaried payday in free agency, to an up-and-down half-season with the Dubs after rehabbing perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer, to seeing his first postseason curtailed by the quad tear—Cousins craved the challenge of performing when it matters most.
“I want to be on this stage,” he told reporters after the game. “This is what I’ve worked for my entire career—to be on this stage, to have this opportunity to play for something.”
In one sense, Cousins is merely playing to actualize the title that every observer all but tacked onto his résumé the second he signed with the Warriors last July. In another, though, he’s playing to prove that he still matters. That he’s not just an aftermarket add-on to an already finished product, that he’s a vital and necessary piece of the championship puzzle for this iteration of the Warriors.
“I’ve told y’all before: I don’t take any of this for granted,” Cousins said. “I’ve seen how quick this game can be taken away from you. So every chance I get to go out there and play, I’m going to leave it on the floor.”
Cousins was never going to be Golden State’s heart, brain, guts, or circulatory system. Performances like Sunday’s, though, prove he can be a lot more than a vestigial organ. Especially on nights when nearly every other Warrior of consequence is either sidelined or playing through some malady, and for a team that had struggled mightily to generate half-court offense in Game 1 without Durant on hand.
“It allowed us to play through him some in the post,” Green said. “They got to honor that, or we know what he’s capable of if they don’t.”
Now the Raptors do, too. Overplaying the Warriors off the ball leaves the back door open, and now Toronto isn’t the only team in this series with a big man who can hit cutters with on-time and on-target passes. Play Cousins to pass, and he can maraud his way into the lane for a bucket or a foul. Cousins’s talent and versatility give Kerr more options, which the Warriors sorely need right now.
“[Cousins] feels good in there right now, and we have a couple days before Game 3, so we do feel confident that we can continue to get good minutes from him,” Kerr said. “We’re going to need them, obviously, with all these injuries.”
If Looney can’t go, the Warriors will need a big body with quick hands and a quicker mind to hold down the fort against Toronto’s pick-and-roll game, to fight for defensive rebounds, and to spring Golden State’s guards open with road-grader screens. If Thompson and Iguodala can’t go, the Warriors will need another source of shot creation and high-IQ playmaking. If any/all of them are out and Durant can’t go, the Warriors might need something like a miracle. A healthy and fully unleashed Cousins might be Golden State’s best answer to all of the above.
“Coach always talks about it,” Curry said. “That everybody’s going to have a chance to help us win a championship at some point, and just to stick with it and be patient. And it shows itself over the course of a season.”
In Cousins’s case, it showed itself on Sunday. He has finally reached the sport’s biggest stage, and this is his chance—to prove that he’s capable of carrying a larger load and can contribute to winning at the highest level, and that he’s ready for the moment. Is he? Like so much else in this series, we don’t really know. Come Wednesday in Oakland, though, we’ll start to find out.