TORONTO — Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t supposed to play in this year’s NBA Finals after he suffered what many within the organization feared was a season-ending quad tear on April 15. On Sunday, after scoring 11 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists in 28 minutes during a 109-104 Game 2 victory over the Toronto Raptors, Cousins got the last laugh on his doubters, delivering the most important performance of his brief tenure with the group.
“He was great,” Warriors coach Steve 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. So I thought he was fantastic.”
After coming off the bench in Game 1 and playing only eight minutes, Cousins was inserted into the starting lineup prior to Game 2, and he helped close the game down after a slow start. He provided a stabilizing force for the offense while clogging the Raptors’ lane and adding two blocks on the defensive end. It was exactly the kind of production the Warriors envisioned when they stunned the basketball world by signing him to a one-year, $5.3 million deal last summer.
“It feels great,” Cousins said. “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.”
“He was special,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Obviously you get more comfortable, more minutes and playing aggressive when he’s out there, puts a lot of pressure on their defense. And even on our defensive end, making his presence felt blocking shots, being in the right place at the right time. It’s a big lift for us. I know he’s been waiting a long time to be on this stage. Obviously, with his injuries, he’s taken the challenge of inserting himself and making that transition smooth. So it’s been fun to watch. More to come.”
Cousins, who didn’t play for the Warriors until Jan. 18 after spending almost an entire year rehabbing from an Achilles injury, told Kerr that he would be ready for whatever came his way. Thursday’s Game 1 marked the first time in 33 games that Cousins came off the bench this season. He found more of a comfort zone after replacing Jordan Bell in the starting lineup on Sunday.
“I told Steve coming into this, whatever he needed from me, I was OK with,” Cousins said. “If it’s coming off the bench, if it’s starting, if it’s playing eight minutes or 40, I’m cool with whatever. So I just want to come in and help the team with whatever’s needed.”
Cousins’ performance gave an emotional lift to the rest of his teammates. On a night when the Warriors were playing without Durant, lost Thompson and Kevon Looney to injuries and dealt with dehydration issues for Curry, it was Cousins who provided an unexpected pick-me-up at the right time.
“DeMarcus hasn’t played much basketball over the course of the last 18 months,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “So the more he plays, the better feel he gets. Tonight he was huge for us. Putting him in the starting lineup, I think it was big. 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. Similar to tonight, he was great on both ends as well. 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.”
For Cousins, the opportunity to produce on basketball’s biggest stage is what he was hoping for all year. He kept working hard when his body broke down for the second time, refusing to believe that his season was over. Now all that hard work has paid off in the form of an increased role on a team that suddenly needs him more, given the injuries that continue to pile up.
“I want to be on this stage,” Cousins said. “This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to be on this stage, to have this opportunity to play for something. But once they told me I had a chance, a slight chance, of being able to return, it basically was up to me and the work and the time I put in behind the injury, it was up to me … I’ve told y’all before, I don’t take any of this for granted. 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.”