Stunned and shaken, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told reporters that Cousins would undergo an MRI on Tuesday to assess a “pretty significant” left quad injury.
“He’s going to be out for a while,” Kerr said, stopping short of labeling the injury as season-ending.
For Cousins, who spent much of this season recovering from a ruptured left Achilles he suffered in January 2018, the injury amounts to an especially cruel blow. The 28-year-old big man made his postseason debut Saturday — a major milestone given that he had battled the “loser” label after missing the playoffs in his first eight seasons.
But just four minutes into Game 2, Cousins stumbled awkwardly as he tracked down the ball in the backcourt. He first slid on his back and then clutched his left leg in clear pain, while moving gingerly to pull himself up. After being unable to rejoin the action on defense, Cousins departed for the locker room. The Warriors quickly announced that he was done for the night, and ESPN.com reported later Monday night that it could end his postseason run after just two appearances.
Worst of all, Cousins was forced to settle for a one-year, $5.3 million contract last summer due to his Achilles tear. Had he been healthy, Cousins easily could have commanded a long-term contract worth north of $100 million. History could repeat itself here, as Cousins is on track to become an unrestricted free agent in July. A second consecutive major injury would certainly affect his market value.
“You feel for him considering what he’s been through this last year,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “This is a big stage, the playoffs. He’s been looking forward to this. I don’t know the extent of the injury at this point. Hope he gets back sooner than later. Just man to man in terms of him, what he’s been through, it’s tough for sure. There’s no sugarcoating it at all.”
The Warriors initially handled Cousins’ departure well, building a 73-50 halftime edge. But the Clippers slowly worked their way back into the game in the second half, outscoring Golden State, 41-23, in the final period. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the driving forces of the NBA’s highest-scoring bench, scored 36 and 25 points, respectively.
Together, they set the stage for rookie guard Landry Shamet, who drained a go-ahead three-pointer in the closing seconds to silence the Oracle Arena crowd and send Clippers owner Steve Ballmer into a tizzy at his courtside seat.
“You just love this group,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “They just don’t give in. It was our spirit more than anything. This is special. I don’t care [who] you’re playing, [if] you’re down 30 on the road to anybody, and you come back, it’s special.”
Instead of sitting pretty with a 2-0 series lead and the possibility of closing out a four-game sweep on Sunday, the Warriors must now pull themselves together, change their starting lineup, and refocus for Game 3 in L.A. on Thursday.
Although Cousins is Golden State’s highest-profile center, he’s endured a comeback season filled with ups and downs. Kerr will likely turn to veteran center Andrew Bogut, a member of the Warriors’ 2015 title team who was re-signed in March, as a spot starter.
“Obviously, there will be more minutes,” Bogut said. “It’ll still be matchup dependent, but I anticipate probably starting games, playing the first three or four minutes and then coming out.”
Kevon Looney, Golden State’s most dependable center, will likely continue to play major minutes in a reserve role. Second-year center Jordan Bell could also be in line for more time.
“My role pretty much stays the same,” Looney said. “[Bogut] usually starts. I’ll get my same role, same minutes. I’ll probably get a little more time. Just bring the energy, try to be a little more aggressive when I get the ball down in the paint.”
Kerr can also fill in the rotation gaps by leaning more heavily on his best lineup, the small ball “Hamptons 5″ lineup that includes Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.
“That’s our best lineup, so in the playoffs we’ll play it more often,” Kerr said after Game 1. “It’s not rocket science.”
For Golden State, weathering this unexpectedly turbulent night will be less about the Xs and Os, and more about maintaining mental stability. The Warriors remain the league’s most talented and tested team without Cousins, and they can deploy multiple high-performing lineups.
On the court, they will need to re-engage Durant offensively, as the all-star forward took just eight shots and committed nine turnovers in Game 2. They will also need to do a far more consistent job of tracking the Clippers’ shooters and take better care of the ball as a whole.
But first they must lick their wounds.
“The [locker room] mood is s---," Bogut said. “And that’s actually a positive sign in my opinion. It wasn’t something where we were like, ‘Oh, we’ll get them next time.’ We’re genuinely pissed off about it.”