The Golden State Warriors center finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists — pedestrian production for a talented giant who averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds for five straight seasons. Don’t be deceived. Golden State’s 109-104 comeback victory over the Toronto Raptors, which evened the Finals at a game apiece, wouldn’t have occurred without Cousins’s gutsy, timely and selfless contributions. The stakes were huge, he hadn’t started in six weeks, and he came through repeatedly with game-changing contributions.
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr faced a difficult lineup decision after a Game 1 loss in which Cousins looked a step slow throughout his eight minutes of playing time in his first action back from a serious quad injury. There were three general options: 1) Start Cousins and hope the move would help him find a rhythm, 2) Continue to use him off the bench in hopes he could contribute against weaker competition, or 3) Dump him in favor of healthier players and smaller lineups.
Based solely on Cousins’s ineffective play in Game 1, conventional wisdom would have favored the second or third options. There were other factors to consider, though, such as Kevin Durant’s ongoing absence with a leg injury. Without Durant’s length and versatility, the Warriors don’t feel comfortable going to small-ball lineups against Toronto’s big and long front line. That left Kerr to divvy up his center minutes among Cousins, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and Jordan Bell.
Bell didn’t set the world on fire as a Game 1 starter. At 34, a healthy Bogut doesn’t move much better than a recovering Cousins. And Looney, despite being Golden State’s most effective and reliable center, hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in a game all year. Those options led Kerr to start Cousins and pencil him in for 20 minutes, a substantial uptick that represented serious risk. If Toronto could successfully exploit Cousins’s limited mobility by forcing him to switch onto Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s defense seemed likely to leak points.
However, starting Cousins came with an obvious benefit: His life is much simpler when he is surrounded by stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Toronto’s defense would treat him as a fifth option, and he would have plenty of cover on the defensive end. Although Cousins got into early foul trouble, the Warriors were leading by two when he checked out midway through the first quarter. Considering the circumstances, winning those early minutes felt like a mild victory.
From there, Cousins kicked his game up a notch. He bullied his way to the free throw line twice and hit a three-pointer in the second quarter, then became even more involved when Golden State ripped off an 18-0 third-quarter run. He pushed the ball up the court and found Andre Iguodala for a three. He fought hard for early post position and hit Thompson for a cutting layup. He doubled down to block Pascal Siakam on one end and found Thompson cutting again on the other.
The hits continued in the fourth. He made two spinning layups, found Quinn Cook for a wing three and then led Shaun Livingston on a backdoor cut. With Looney and Thompson lost to injury during the game’s closing stage, Cousins was forced to log 27 minutes — well over Kerr’s intended target and the most he has played since April 9. He made that time count: Golden State was plus-12 with him on the court and minus-7 without him.
“He was special,” Curry said. “You get more comfortable with more minutes and he was playing aggressive, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. He made his presence felt blocking shots, being in the right place at the right time. It was a big lift for us.”
Remember, Cousins is a 6-foot-11 big man who has suffered two traumatic leg injuries in the past 18 months and is set to be a free agent this summer. No one would have faulted him for slow-playing his rehabilitation, and most observers assumed that his return to the Finals would prove to be largely inconsequential.
Cousins’s supporters have insisted for years that he is a good teammate whose competitiveness and frustration with losing was misinterpreted as hotheadedness, immaturity or evidence of poor leadership skills. Game 2 was Exhibit A for his desired self-perception. Cousins was there for the Warriors when they needed him most, grabbing rebounds in traffic, blocking shots, playmaking and holding up remarkably well defensively down the stretch.
“This was an incredible moment for me,” Cousins said. “I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve seen how quickly this game can be taken away. Every chance I get to out there and play, I’m going to leave it on the floor.”
Injured and recovering players are prone to big swings in effectiveness, and it’s possible that Sunday will represent Cousins’s high-water mark in this series from an impact standpoint. No matter. Cousins has spent nine seasons waiting for this chance and more than a month pushing his body through rehab to get back on the court. Faced with adverse circumstances, he responded with a performance worth cherishing.