TORONTO — It has not yet been determined whether Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins will play in Thursday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, head coach Steve Kerr during Wednesday’s Finals media day.
Kerr, though, did anything but rule out that the four-time All-Star and prize offseason acquisition could take the floor soon, after suffering what the team thought would be a season-ending injury in Game 2 of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“He’s done an incredible job of rebounding, rehabbing and now, here he is, he’s scrimmaged a couple times this week, he’s pain-free,” Kerr said.
Cousins, who signed with the Warriors this summer after tearing his Achilles on Jan. 26, 2018, had never been to the playoffs in his career. After a lackluster postseason debut, followed by a torn quadriceps muscle minutes into his second playoff game six weeks ago, one of the most versatile centers in the game could have a major impact on these NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, for a team still missing Kevin Durant, who has yet to begin on-court work.
“It’s really more a matter of rhythm and timing and conditioning and all those things,” Kerr said of Cousins. “I think I mentioned the other day, if this were the regular season, I’d throw him out there and he’d play whatever minutes he could tolerate, and we’d build him up from there. It’s not the regular season. It’s the Finals.”
Having not played basketball for almost 14 of the last 17 months, and with less than five quarters of playoff game experience, Cousins will get dropped into a high-intensity, high-pressure grinder if and when he takes the court.
“It’s kind of like some kid who grew up in the suburbs going to private school and then one day you just got dropped in the hood and was told to survive,” forward Draymond Green said. “You got to figure that out. It’s very similar to that. Now in saying that, if you’re that kid that’s dropped in the hood, like what do you revert to? You just revert to what you know. You do whatever it is that you know. You just try to do that to survive … I think it’s also on us. You know that kid has a much better chance of surviving if he gets with the right group of friends in that neighborhood.”
Toronto features a pair of the centers against which the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins could be particularly effective. The Warriors have seldom had a player with the size and sheer bulk of Cousins, who could take on 6-foot-10, 235-pound Serge Ibaka and 7-foot-1, 255-pound Marc Gasol, who are averaging a combined 12.3 rebounds and 17.3 points per game.
Cousins did not play in either Warriors loss to the Raptors, one a three-point overtime loss, and the other a 20-point blowout in Oakland. Ibaka 8-for-13 for 20 points and four rebounds in the first game, and went 7-of-16 for 20 points and 12 rebounds in the second meeting. Gasol arrived at the trading deadline.
Golden State signed Cousins with the knowledge that he still had six months to go on his rehab, and were able to function well without him over the first half of the season, before debuting Cousins in Los Angeles in late January.
After limited minutes out of the gate, Cousins averaged 25.9 minutes over his last nine regular-season games, shooting 50.8% from the field, grabbing 9.1 rebounds, dishing out 3.4 assists and adding 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, while averaging 17.8 points. In his final four games, he averaged 20.5 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
In Game 1 against the Clippers, his postseason debut, he shot just 4-of-12 and, though he pulled down nine rebounds and tallied four assists, turned the ball over six times. 3:51 into Game 2, he sprawled onto the floor and grabbed his left leg.
After missing the rest of the series against Los Angeles, all of the Western Conference Semifinals and Western Conference Finals against Portland, Cousins has begun to participate in full five-on-five scrimmages with younger players, and has ramped that up over the nine-day layoff Golden State has had since dispatching the Trail Blazers.
“We’re stubborn, we’re bullheaded, we feel like we can fight through anything, and that’s not always the best case for the individual,” Cousins said. “So obviously we’ll come together and figure out the best plan for me.”
One of the biggest reasons Cousins signed with the Warriors was to prove his mettle in the playoffs, and show that, after a career-threatening injury, that he could still be an impact player. Showcasing his physical resilience on a Finals stage would go a long ways in proving to the rest of the league that he’s worth a hefty contract, rather than the veteran’s mid-level exception.
“This is the stage that every basketball player as a kid growing up dreams of,” Cousins said. “To be here is a huge honor and it’s an incredible feeling, so I’m extremely excited about it and it makes me that much more — it makes me that much more antsy to get on the floor and help my team. If that opportunity is presented to me, I plan on taking full advantage of it.”
Now, it’s up to Kerr and his staff to figure out how to deploy Cousins to maximize his impact. Gasol averages 31.2 minutes on the floor per game, and Ibaka 21.3, and at his most active this season, Cousins averaged 27.6 in his final four games.
“We have to figure out what’s the best way to utilize him, how many minutes he can play, what the game feels like, what the match-ups are like,” Kerr said. “So, some of that will be determined by what’s happening in the game, and the other stuff is just internal with our staff.”