- Once thought to be out the rest of the season with a torn left quad, DeMarcus Cousins' availability has become increasingly critical as Golden State battles injuries from Kevin Durant, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson.
The last run of an NBA dynasty is often met by an increasingly creaky roster as the finish line approaches. The 2014 Heat started Rashard Lewis in the final game of LeBron James’ tenure and the 2004 Lakers attempted to mine significant minutes from 40-year-old Karl Malone. Role players cash in and leave champions while star players add plenty of mileage to their career odometers. Sheer fatigue has been a dynasty killer more than once.
The toll of Golden State’s five straight Finals was evident in Game 1, most notably on the Warriors’ front line. Pascal Siakam sprinted to the tin at will en route to 32 points and Marc Gasol dissected Stephen Curry and Co. from the high post. Kevin Durant’s absence dampened the Warriors’ offensive output, but the defensive holes left by his absence still hold weight. With few deterrents in the paint, the Raptors feasted on a buffet of easy buckets.
Draymond Green struggled to contain Siakam in the first half of Game 1, yet the former Defensive Player of the Year is only partly culpable for Golden State’s slow start. A large share of blame fell on DeMarcus Cousins. Appearing in his first game since round one of the West playoffs, Cousins looked gassed within his first five minutes of action. The artist formerly known as Boogie picked up a pair of fouls in eight minutes of action, huffing and puffing with his hands on his knees at each dead ball. Kyle Lowry bounced off Cousins for easy fouls and Serge Ibaka lived in the restricted area. Cousins was out of shape and out of place, once again cutting Steve Kerr’s list of reliable rotation players. As the pile of injuries mounted, Cousins’ inability to give quality minutes doomed Golden State in Game 1.
Kerr stood by Cousins in Game 2 and even inserted the former Kings malcontent into Golden State’s starting lineup. The move worked wonders. Cousins looked increasingly spry in Sunday’s 104-99 victory, sporting a second wind in the Warriors’ third-quarter comeback. He tallied 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, ending the night with a team-best plus-12. Cousins found his sea legs on the defensive end and looked downright spry offensively. He’ll now be increasingly counted on through the rest of the Finals.
Cousins would ideally be used as an elite role player in short bursts, logging limited minutes in the most impactful opportunities. Kerr brought Cousins off the bench in Game 1, checking in at the start of the second quarter. Cousins played alongside Klay Thompson as Curry and Green rested, but the plan failed to kickstart Cousins. He slogged through his fourth quarter minutes after an encouraging start, charging over Kyle Lowry and committing a shooting foul before exiting for good with eight minutes remaining. The bench units seemed to stifle Cousins, who lumbered out of place in the half court with little engagement in the action.
Playing alongside Curry and Green boosted Cousins on Sunday night. He pushed the break like Green’s heftier brother and slung a pair of backdoor dimes. Cousins’ proudest possession came early in the third quarter as Golden State stole the lead. He became isolated on Leonard following a Marc Gasol screen, and Leonard drove left. Cousins in Game 1 would have and picked up a cheap foul trying to cut off the angle, but the big fella continued to contain Leonard on Sunday, forcing a missed 13-footer. The shot fell short and Cousins rushed the ball up the floor. He paused at the three-point line and whipped an open pass to Andre Iguodala in the corner, who converted his first three of the evening (the second proved a touch more important). Cousins was an elite playmaker before his Achilles injury in New Orleans. That guy still appears in glimpses after a pair of difficult injuries.
Cousins’ availability is increasingly critical as Golden State searches for room on its training tables. Durant is out for Game 3 and Looney is out for the series. Thompson is questionable and Iguodala is, well, less than 100% to say the least. The Warriors now need Cousins more than they ever expected, though such a burden could prove problematic. Cousins’ endurance remains in doubt after just two games, and foul trouble is still a question mark. Lowry is a master at drawing contact, while Gasol and Ibaka should try to bait Cousins down low early. Even if Cousins’ mental errors are a thing of the past, his physical limitations can still be exploited. Kerr has limited options if Cousins isn’t effective.
With Looney now out for the series, additional minutes could be in line for Andrew Bogut as he looks to bookend the Warriors’ dynasty. The 34-year-old isn’t much more than a rim-runner and sturdy paint presence at this point, but his value is still noted. Bogut connected on a trio of lobs in Sunday’s victory—including an impressive one-hand layup—continuing his dominant NBL form on the game’s biggest stage. Jordan Bell should get another chance on the floor, though his continued regression could put a quick end to his minutes. Looney’s loss shouldn’t be swept under the rug amid Golden State’s star-studded injury report. He was a menace on the boards and a capable defender in space, likely earning a sizable payday this summer. Golden State will miss him if the rest of its rotation falls short.
The Warriors’ Game 2 win initially felt like a turning point in the series as Durant and Thompson trash talked Drake in the tunnel. The decade’s greatest dynasty stole Game 2 on the road short-handed, returning to the Bay smelling blood. But we shouldn’t assume no Durant, no Looney and (potentially) no Thompson means no problem at Oracle Arena. Toronto has the personnel to bother Curry and Kawhi likely has plenty of bullets left in the chamber. The Warriors have an opportunity to seize the Finals on Wednesday night; they’ll need strong minutes from Cousins to take a pivotal 2–1 lead.