OAKLAND — Once DeMarcus Cousins finished his year-long rehab from a torn Achilles and made his season debut for the Golden State Warriors against the Los Angeles Clippers back in January, after he scored 14 points and pulled down six rebounds in 15 minutes in Los Angeles, he was able to do something he’d never been able to do his entire career: Recede into the background.
At Kentucky, in Sacramento, in New Orleans, Green was the centerpiece. As he continued to up his minutes with Golden State after his return, he could get his work in while the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and his best friend on the team, Draymond Green, took the spotlight. Cousins was just another cog.
Paradoxically, when Cousins was the focal point on the court, it was in places without the media scrutiny attendant to the two-time defending NBA champions. Leading into Saturday night’s playoff opener against the Clippers, Cousins — who had 20.5 points and 11 boards over the final four games of the regular season — was the story. He’d never played a postseason game. After a dud in his first run under the playoff lights, Golden State expects big things from their big man, now that his second debut is out of the way.
“I think he’s going to play great. DeMarcus has a ton of pride,” head coach Steve Kerr said before Monday’s Game 2. “He’s obviously a great talent, an All-Star, all of that, but you’ve seen his passion and his energy.”
While Cousins wasn’t the focal point of opposing defenses in the regular season, in the early goings on Saturday, it was almost as if Los Angeles forgot about him, until they didn’t. He hit his first wide-open three as the defense collapsed on Durant, but after that, he tried to force things inside, and ran into a traffic jam. Had he stayed on the perimeter more, he may have gotten into a rhythm.
“If you’ve never been in a playoff game, you’ve never really truly seen somebody’s scheme against you but also your entire team,” Green said. “You play somebody in the regular season, and granted, he’s been the guy for so long, so he’s seen double teams, but in actual — like in the regular season, you don’t really have much time to really focus on a scheme.”
Cousins was visibly peeved when he was removed with more than six minutes left in the second quarter, and again when he fouled out in the fourth. In 21 minutes, he was just 4-of-12 from the field, and despite having nine rebounds and four assists, was largely a liability on both ends of the floor, as he tried to force passes on offense, passed up shots and was frustrated by defending Montrez Harrell. He looked very much like the player he was as he was trying to up his minute count past the 25-minute barrier three months ago.
”You see some rookies come in and it’s their first playoff game, like there was no difference tonight between Landry Shamet and DeMarcus,” Green said. “It was both of their first playoff games, and that’s kind of what happens. It’s the first time you’ve seen that intensity.”
“He was frustrated the other night, and I’ve seen him have big games for us this year pretty much every time we’ve needed it,” Kerr said Monday. “Big games, on the road against opposing All-Star centers, he’s been at his best. I think DeMarcus, coming off a sub-par game for him, I think, will bounce back.”
In just his third game back, he shot 8-of-12 from the field in 24 minutes and pulled down six boards. After a 4-of-17, 12-point night against Utah on Feb. 12, Cousins bounced back in a tight game against playoff contender Sacramento, hitting 6-of-12 from the field for 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. After a dismal three-game stretch in March that saw him go a combined 14-for-34 from the field and 1-for-12 from 3-point range, he shot 11-of-16 in a then-season-high 32 minutes on the road against the playoff-bound Houston Rockets, scoring 27 points with eight rebounds and seven assists.
He’d come a long way from that former All-Star frustrated with his body, until Saturday.
“Everything’s more magnified,” Cousins said in a brief — and blunt — interview after the game. “Every possession is more important, so it’s a lot more, everybody’s a lot more locked in. The focus on the task at hand is a lot more severe.”
“At the end of the day, he’s been as successful as he has because he’s played his game,” Green said. “And so I think he just needs to really focus on that. Don’t worry about all the other stuff or — it’s his first playoff game, so that also comes with some jitters and some adjusting.”
Cousins said his first playoff experience was a fun environment, but said it with all the conviction of someone who says they love airplane food. He was clearly disappointed in his performance. It’s why his team thinks his center will have another bounce-back day in Game 2.
“He’s going to be great for us,” said guard Klay Thompson. “He’s going to win us a lot of games. It obviously wasn’t DeMarcus’s best game, but he still was very effective out there, and he’s going to be great for us. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. He’s going to be dominant from here on out.”