OAKLAND — DeMarcus Cousins reached a finger underneath his ruby-red sunglasses and flicked at the corner of his eye. As his teammate, Stephen Curry, went on to describe what Cousins did in Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors as “special,” Cousins was wiping a tear from his eye.
After making it back after a 12-month rehab from an Achilles tear that threatened to derail his career, and then tearing his left quadriceps in just his second career playoff game, Cousins returned in just over six weeks and delivered a game-saving 28-minute performance in just his second game back on the floor. That he rehabbed as quickly as he did, and performed as well as he did on the game’s biggest stage, is not a surprise to those closest to him.
When backup center Kevon Looney went out of Game 2 at halftime with a non-displaced first costal cartilage fracture, Golden State ran the offense through Cousins and escaped with a split in Toronto. With Kevin Durant still out with a strained right calf, and Looney out for the series, Golden State will lean even more heavily on their biggest offseason acquisition in Game 3 on Wednesday.
“I want to be on this stage,” he said on Sunday. “This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to be on this stage, to have this opportunity to play for something.”
In his first Finals appearance, Cousins played eight unremarkable minutes. On Sunday, with Looney missing the second half and Klay Thompson missing the final eight minutes with a hamstring strain, Cousins recorded a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds), and in over nine fourth-quarter minutes, he helped fend off a late Raptors charge, dishing out two of his six assists, while going 2-of-5 from the field and tallying one of his two blocked shots on the night, along with four rebounds.
“The second game was a really great moment for him, to know, ‘Hey, I’m OK, I can relax and be me,’” said Cousins’ mother, Monique Cousins-Evans. “… That’s all that he’s been working for. That’s all he’s ever talked about, is being able to help his team win a championship.”
Ever since Cousins mimicked the players on the television while watching NBA basketball as a child, the Finals had been his goal. After six and a half years with the moribund Sacramento Kings and two half-seasons with New Orleans before he arrived in Oakland, Cousins had never so much as played in a single postseason game. Signing a veteran’s mid-level exception deal with Golden State this summer was as much about finally reaching the postseason as it was proving he was healthy.
His first shot at the playoffs had come with the Pelicans last season, but on Jan. 26, 2018, he ruptured his left Achilles, an injury that, not long ago, was considered a career death sentence.
As Cousins sat beside his mother in the bowels of the Smoothie King Center that night, he cried. Once the emotions subsided, the two developed a game plan. He was told by his surgeon, Dr. Richard Ferkel, that his recovery would take 12 months. During his recovery, Cousins would challenge Ferkel’s milestones. When Ferkel said Cousins could get in the pool to work out by a certain date, he was ready before that.
“If you say ‘There’s a chance you can do this, and a chance you can do that,’ be careful with your words. He’s going to hold you to it,” Cousins-Evans said.
As Cousins neared his return to the NBA this winter, he called his mom, frustrated and emotional.
“This shit is so hard,” he told her. “It’s so time-consuming, it’s so tedious, it’s so repetitious that it drives you crazy.”
Cousins-Evans replied, “So, you’re giving up?”
“No,” Cousins said. “I just needed to say it’s bullshit.” The two started laughing.
When he finally debuted on Jan. 20 in Los Angeles, he’d beaten the prognostications. He averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in 25.7 minutes after his return, and over the final four games of the regular season, averaged 20.5 points and 11 boards and four assists.
“It was a situation where we could exhale, because during the process, we were just holding our breath and praying,” Cousins-Evans said.
Cousins-Evans was not in Oakland when her son went sprawling for a loose ball on April 15, tearing his left quadriceps in his second career playoff game against the Los Angeles Clippers. She didn’t hear from him until two days later, after he’d gotten an MRI and a diagnosis.
“I pouted, I sulked, I felt sorry for myself and I just started the process,” Cousins said. “Me just sitting around feeling sorry isn’t going to help me get on the floor. Once I talked with Rick [Celebrini] and the staff and some of the doctors, they told me that it’s a chance that I could [play], it’s a small window where I could come back and play.”
Then, he called his mother.
“How are you? How’s the leg?” Cousins-Evans said.
“It’s straight,” Cousins replied. “I gotta to do what I gotta do.”
The prescribed recovery and rehab time for a partially torn quadriceps is six weeks. That’s to say nothing of readying that muscle group to take the constant stop-and-start and pounding of an NBA game. It was just another goal for Cousins. By the time he was ready for contact, his scrimmages against Warriors youngsters were ugly, and he wasn’t in shape. But Golden State swept Portland in the conference finals, and Cousins had nine more days to get ready.
“You don’t become the player DeMarcus has been in this league if you’re not a goal-oriented person who’s stubborn and going to go and take what you want,” said forward Draymond Green.
When head coach Steve Kerr told Cousins that he would be starting Game 2 after giving the Warriors some eight slogging minutes in Game 1, Cousins responded, “About time,” Kerr told The Athletic.
Cousins called his mother again on Monday, after returning home. The family will be attending Games 3 and 4 in Oakland, and she could hear the excitement in his voice.
“He was focused, engaged, he was feeling good,” Cousins-Evans said. “Ready.”
“He’s going to be huge for us the rest of the series,” Curry said. “And you can tell he’s reminding people of how special of a talent he is.”