TORONTO — When asked about preparing for a new opponent in the NBA Finals after facing LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers the past four seasons, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr considered the two games the Warriors played against their new Finals foe — the Toronto Raptors — this season.
The two teams played twice this season. The Raptors beat the two-time defending NBA champions both times. None of that, however, matters. The Raptors didn’t have Marc Gasol. The Warriors did not have DeMarcus Cousins. In the second game, a 20-point blowout by Toronto in Oakland, the Raptors were without star Kawhi Leonard, who scored 37 in the first matchup.
“We hardly know Toronto’s team and even if you include the two games this year, players from both sides were out, so you can’t glean a whole lot from those two tapes,” Kerr said. “So this series, unlike the last few years, will be against an unfamiliar foe … Kawhi being brand new to this team, there’s very little history, real history between the two teams as constituted.”
Golden State is now missing Kevin Durant, arguably the best scorer of his generation. Leonard is healthy, and Gasol has averaged 30.1 minutes over the course of the postseason. The biggest difference, though, in a very literal sense, is DeMarcus Cousins, who will return six weeks after tearing his left quadriceps.
“He’s big around the block, he’s a guy they can throw it into down there and possibly force you into some double teams and that’s always exposing some other things if you have to double team somebody,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s also a really passer. They drop him out there at the top of the key, trailing in the break, and they hit him and guys start cutting and he can find them. So it presents us a few problems. We have tried to prepare our guys for those and hopefully come up with some coverages that minimize his effectiveness.”
That could open the door for outside shooters like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, who are averaging a combined 49 points over the last 10 playoff games, with Curry shooting 41.7% from three (30-for-72) over the last five games, since Durant went down with a calf strain. Cousins’ ability to draw defenders to the middle helped Golden State get open 3-pointers as soon as he hit the floor in a game, but the rest came more slowly.
After limited minutes coming off his 12-month Achilles recovery, 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.
“We have been through this before,” said Kerr, who previously cautioned that he couldn’t just throw Cousins into a game, because, as he said, “this is the Finals.”
The attitude surrounding Cousins and the Warriors for the past two weeks has been one filled with tension, and not just because the 6-foot-11, 270-pound four-time All-Star was making remarkably speedy progress in his recovery. Though players have professed to the return of his skill in scrimmages, what little media have been able to see of Cousins has looked very far away from where he was at the end of the season. That’s reason enough to be skeptical of whether or not Kerr — who has seen his team play arguably its best basketball over the past three weeks — would be enthusiastic about shoehorning Cousins into the rotation.
There’s a further wrinkle: Cousins, had his quad injury in fact cost him the entire postseason, may not have gotten the types of contract offers he sought when he signed with Golden State. One of his biggest reasons for joining the Warriors on the veteran’s minimum was so that he could showcase his talents in the playoffs, coming off his Achilles injury, and prove himself healthy to the rest of the league. Playing Cousins, then, would be giving him a runway to leave.
When Cousins had made his previous recovery, his minutes were ramped up from 15 minutes per game to 25 and then eventually beyond, but that took a span of three months. The plan, at that point, looked to be going swimmingly, and because it was the regular season with inly seeding on the line, there wasn’t much at stake. Now, of course, there is: Golden State’s third straight title.
“His first injury, when he came back in January, I think it was we saw him transfer from scrimmages to actual games and we saw a big uptick,” Kerr said. “We were worried about the scrimmages and then he really started playing in the game. So he’s a gamer. He’s a guy who lights up when the lights go on.”
The Finals lights, though, are much different, something Draymond Green attested to on Wednesday. Because it’s the Finals, the Raptors may in fact not play Gasol much, and instead try and attack Golden State with small ball, which would hinder Cousins’ effectiveness, particularly with him coming off a lower body injury and having a history of foul trouble.
“I think because he’s been out for six, seven weeks and because he’s a big guy, I don’t know that his wind and legs will allow him to play big minutes,” Kerr said, “but I know that he can help us in bursts and we’ll have to figure out what that means … I think what you’ll see is as the series goes on each side will get more comfortable with the other, and there will be a feeling-out process to start the series.”