- The Warriors are used to a life of luxury, but give them lemons and they'll make lemonade. With no Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson down the stretch, Golden State made the most out of what it had in Game 2.
Any team in the Warriors’ position—pretending, for a moment, that any ever were—couldn’t help but have a unique relationship to luxury. On some level, Kevin Durant could only be a luxury addition for a team that had already won a title as previously constructed. On another, DeMarcus Cousins seemed a luxury as the fifth star joining the back-to-back champions. Opulence became a part of the Warriors' brand, as inextricable from the team as their Splash brotherhood, their bravado, and their collective intelligence. Golden State doesn’t just win on talent or wits, but by having the most to work with at any given time.
It’s a good life, albeit one that looks quite different from this side of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Durant hasn’t played for the Warriors in almost a month. Klay Thompson couldn’t finish Sunday’s game on account of a hamstring injury brought on by an awkward landing. Kevon Looney, Golden State’s most consistent center throughout the playoffs, went down (and out) with a shoulder injury after Kawhi Leonard ran straight through him. The Warriors’ best defender against Leonard, Andre Iguodala, is not only dealing with a lingering calf injury, but was decked by a blind-side screen from Marc Gasol that sent him to the locker room. An already top-heavy roster risked toppling over—a reminder that the very idea of luxury is always contextual.
Owning a fifth car is only a luxury until the other four break down. Cousins proved to be that fifth car, roaring to life at a most desperate time. There were moments when the most talented team in the league was grasping for half-court offense, in search of any means to reliably produce points. Cousins bought time. There was an open question, as the game evolved, as to who would be able to fill all the center minutes necessary. Cousins left no doubt. The decision of when and how much to play Cousins in this series—then fresh off his recovery from a torn quad—was a delicate issue rich in complications. After a so-so Finals debut, Warriors coach Steve Kerr chose to start Cousins in Game 2 and made his team all the better for it.
“I told Steve coming into this, whatever he needed from me, I was okay 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.” Considering the magnitude of this game and the increasingly crowded injury report, Golden State needed every minute it could get. Cousins gave 28 good ones—productive, sure, but otherwise exceptional. It’s nice to score 11 points, grab 10 rebounds, and dish out six assists in the NBA Finals. To do so as the last, best option for a team with nowhere else to turn is the stuff of championship legend. Should the Warriors win this series, Cousins will be remembered for the way he rose to a moment that at first seemed beyond him.
Every half-court possession against Toronto’s defense feels like a hard day’s work. There are savvy help defenders at every turn. There’s no natural matchup for Leonard so long as Durant is out, which means that he could be anywhere at any time, ready to jump the ball. Those Raptors in pursuit of Thompson and Stephen Curry have denied the Warriors’ top scorers relentlessly. With the help of another playmaker in Cousins, the Warriors found their way through the backdoor. It wasn’t just the number of assists, but the nature of them; the flow of the offense, through Cousins, loosened up the Raptors’ coverage. The seven fouls he drew softened it further, in part by putting Gasol into foul trouble and fouling out Kyle Lowry with almost four minutes left in a competitive game.
One could have come away from Cousins’ eight so-so minutes in Game 1 with the impression that he would be a marginal factor in this championship series—a question mark in a series of certainties. Clearly, Kerr saw things differently. His vision led to a 109-104 win Sunday night and a 1–1 series.
“We came in thinking, all right, he can maybe play 20 minutes and he gave us almost 28,” Kerr said. “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.”
It’s easy to characterize the coach of a superteam as little more than a steward. The truth is clearly more complicated, starting with the interpersonal dynamics involved. Not only does Kerr have to consider Cousins as a player, but as the person who has worked tirelessly to come back from two major injuries; as the teammate of those who have seen him work, and might like to see him rewarded; as the competitor who wants to be a team player, but is still most comfortable in certain roles. Stewardship isn’t the half of it. And yet with his team down 1-0 in the NBA Finals, Kerr made the call to start Cousins and to stick with him. It’s just the latest of the timely moves the Warriors coach has made throughout these playoffs, and the most conclusive that he understands the pulse of this team better than anyone.
Who else would think the solution to Golden State’s lax, misaligned defense in Game 1 to be Cousins? Who else would, facing a potential 2-0 series deficit, complicate his team’s best lineups by throwing in a center with his own distinct style? There were plenty of reasons not to start Cousins, and plenty of theories as to why he might struggle in this matchup. Kerr made the move anyway, and Cousins pulverized those theories while bringing the series to balance.
“Once again, DeMarcus hasn't played much basketball over the course of the last 18 months,” 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.”