LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins faced scrutiny on two major fronts ahead of his first NBA game in nearly a year Friday night: mobility and compatibility. How well would the all-star center move after being out since Jan. 26, 2018, with a torn left Achilles’ tendon? And how well would the Golden State Warriors integrate the temperamental big man, who isn’t exactly accustomed to life as a fifth wheel?
Those questions, valid given these extraordinary circumstances, looked empty once the Warriors crushed the Los Angeles Clippers, 112-94, in Cousins’s debut Friday night at Staples Center.
Cousins and his new starting lineup mates — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — often looked like a veritable Dream Team, pounding on hopelessly overmatched competition. Durant started the party with a pretty pick-and-roll to Cousins for a thunderous slam, much to the delight of the Warriors bench, and the Clippers spent the rest of the night trying and failing to keep up with the Warriors’ weapons.
New mutually beneficial relationships sprouted everywhere. Cousins’s comfort on the perimeter created cutting lanes for Curry, whose movement in turn created open looks for Cousins. Cousins’s screen-setting forced switches that Durant could exploit, and Durant’s potent scoring drew attention for Cousins to charge down the paint or pop to the arc with little harassment. Cousins’s physical rebounding helped Durant and Green push the tempo, and Golden State’s playmakers made sure to reward him when he lumbered out on the break.
Cousins, who finished with 14 points, six rebounds and three assists, copped to surprise at how open he was on the perimeter and how often he met single coverage rather than double teams. “This is a first in my entire basketball career,” he said. “I can get used to this. I was like a kid on Christmas. This was probably one of the best days of my life.”
That joy and relief reflect Cousins’s strong debut but also the many potential potholes he survived during his rehabilitation and acclimation. Don’t be fooled by how the Warriors made things look easy.
Achilles’ injuries are notorious for altering and ending careers, and Cousins said he drew motivation from flipping back to a photo of himself in a wheelchair following his surgery. At 28 years old and 270 pounds, both his age and weight were — and remain — potential complicating factors. Plus, he’s in uncharted waters, having never previously been sidelined for an extended stretch during his first eight NBA seasons. “He’s not an injury-prone guy,” said his younger brother Jaleel Cousins, who plays for Golden State’s G League affiliate in Santa Cruz. “To rehab the injury, maintain his weight, and keep in shape while not being able to run, it’s been a tough year for him.”
As complicated as it was to get healthy, finding a proper fit with the back-to-back champs appeared just as daunting. While Cousins has averaged more than 20 points and used more than 30 percent of his team’s possessions for the past five seasons, he would now be cast as the fourth scoring option. Never known as an especially focused or active defender, he would now be asked to join a team whose best basketball relies on its defensive versatility and collective havoc.
There was also the matter of Golden State’s strong recent play. Entering Friday, the Warriors had won six straight games, including offensive masterpieces against the Denver Nuggets (142 points) and New Orleans Pelicans (147 points). “They’re not only the best offensive team in basketball,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, “they’re playing the best they’ve played all year.”
If anything went sideways during Cousins’s debut, then, there would be one big and obvious target for blame. “If it goes really well, DeMarcus is going to get a lot of love,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr predicted before the game. “If it doesn’t go great, [the reaction is going to be]: ‘How is this really going to fit?’ He understands that spotlight is going to be on him.”
Kerr did well to set up Cousins for success, starting him so that he could play a majority of his minutes with Golden State’s other stars and playing him in spurts to work around any lingering conditioning issues. As it turned out, the referees also proved to be a limiting factor, as Cousins fouled out in just 15 minutes on court. Although he covered ground well going end to end, he drew quick whistles as he struggled to move laterally while defending smaller, quicker players.
During his previous stops with the Sacramento Kings or Pelicans, such an outing would have likely led to a loss and, perhaps, a postgame tirade. But the Warriors got everything they needed from Cousins in his 15 minutes, as Curry (28 points) and Durant (24) brought home a comfortable win, and the fouls hardly seemed to be a concern. After all, the Warriors outscored the Clippers by 21 points with Cousins on the court.
“[Cousins has] got to get better with his conditioning, judgment and reaching,” Kerr said. “Given what he’s coming back from and how long it’s been since he played, I was really impressed. He looked great out there and he had a big smile. He’s a really good teammate. He’s loved.”
As with any recovering athlete, every game will present a new test for Cousins’s Achilles’ and mind-set. There will surely be nights where he looks more sluggish, more impatient with the officials and more exploitable on the defensive end. But the nightmare scenarios — that Cousins simply wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough or that he wouldn’t be able to adapt to his new surroundings — are already much harder to envision after witnessing his first 15 minutes back.
Indeed, Cousins’s big night left the rest of the league to ponder their own nightmare: The back-to-back champions could be more unstoppable than ever. If Golden State isn’t going to beat itself through power struggles or personality conflicts, which challenger can aspire to matching this constellation of star talent?
“This was our first time playing together,” Cousins warned a press corps that filled eight rows of seats. “Steve just threw us out there. We can get a whole lot better.”