NBA Finals 2019: With Kevin Durant out, Warriors must carefully navigate the DeMarcus Cousins paradox in Game 6
Cousins is one of the few Golden State role players with scoring potential, but Toronto has feasted on his poor defense
Of all the ups and downs in an NBA Finals that has progressed more like a death-defying roller coaster than a basketball series, perhaps the most polarizing and bewildering player has been Golden State Warriors big man DeMarcus Cousins. The fan reaction and expert analysis after each of his Finals games have been truly unpredictable. In case you haven't been paying attention, here's a quick summary:
- Game 1 (8 minutes, 3 points, 0 rebounds): "Well, the Warriors will be lucky to get anything out of Cousins this series."
- Game 2 (27 minutes, 11 points, 10 rebounds): "Boogie's back! He just saved the series for Golden State!"
- Game 3 (19 minutes, 4 points, 3 rebounds): "Get. Him. Off. The. Court."
- Game 4 (14 minutes, 6 points, 4 rebounds): "Unplayable."
- Game 5 (19 minutes, 14 points, 6 rebounds): "Cousins really stepped up after Durant's injury. The Warriors need him to win."
Basically, all over the map.
And that stands to reason, as a player coming back from not one, but two traumatic injuries is likely to have some bouts of inconsistency. The problem for Golden State is that it doesn't have the ability to ease Cousins back into the flow on both ends of the court. He's been thrown into the middle of a shark-infested sea with only a pair of partially deflated water wings to keep him afloat.
After back-to-back awful games on both sides of the ball, Cousins appeared to be pushed out of the rotation when Kevin Durant returned in Game 5. The Warriors went small with Draymond Green starting at center, and Kevon Looney filled in the majority of the backup center minutes early. When Steve Kerr called Andrew Bogut's number to start the second quarter, Cousins' position on the end of the bench was essentially cemented.
It makes sense. With Cousins struggling offensively, his presence as a defensive liability was too much for Golden State to risk. Since Game 3, the Raptors have been attacking him mercilessly, both in the post and in pick-and-rolls, with great success. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Cousins has allowed 36 points on 29 possessions as the primary defender of the pick-and-roll ball-handler this postseason (an astounding 1.241 points per possession), placing him dead-last among 2019 playoff defenders.
Kyle Lowry, normally referred to as a bulldog, looks more like a bull seeing the bright red key of Scotiabank Arena when Cousins gets switched onto him. He's consistently eviscerated the plodding 7-footer, getting into the paint and finishing at will.
So it wasn't much of a leap to banish Cousins to the bench with the scoring of Durant back on the floor. But then, at the 9:50 mark of the second quarter of Game 5, disaster struck. K.D. limped to the locker room and Cousins -- flaws, turnovers and all -- was pressed into action. And how did the big man respond? He scored seven consecutive points to push the Warriors' lead from five to eight over a minute-long span during a crucial juncture of the game, when Golden State players were still shell-shocked from losing one of their brothers to a devastating injury.
All the credit goes to Cousins, who easily could have let his disappointment over being taken out of the rotation affect his preparation and demeanor. But he was strong with the ball, aggressive from the start, and made some gigantic buckets in the win.
"I thought DeMarcus was fantastic tonight" Kerr said after the Game 5 win. "He stayed ready. He didn't get the first call for that second-quarter run. We went to Bogut and then with the injury we knew we needed his scoring and he stayed ready and played a brilliant game. So, very happy for him and he's been through an awful lot himself over the last year plus with his own injuries. So this was a great night for him individually and very happy for him."
And herein lies the Cousins paradox. As Kerr said, the team needs his offense with Durant out, Looney's status up in the air and Jordan Bell looking like a total disaster in Game 5. Even if Looney can grit it out and play through pain, you'd have to assume he'll be severely hindered on Thursday. When you really look at it, Cousins is probably the only non-Splash Brother on the roster capable of putting up 20-plus points in a game, while Toronto has seen four non-Kawhi players (Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol) pass the 20-point mark in a Finals game, with Fred VanVleet twice scoring 15 or more.
Basically, any of the Raptors' role players (with the possible exception of Norman Powell) are capable of putting up big scoring nights to help out their star. When it comes to the Warriors, Cousins is it. But his defense has been so poor.
How can Cousins be a net positive with the Raptors actively scheming to play him off the court and ruin his night? The key might be simplicity.
It seems like Cousins has tried to do a little too much since his return. It's not really his fault, since these are things that he used to doing for his entire career. But against this team in an NBA Finals setting and coming off of his injuries, this isn't the time for Cousins to be attempting to dribble through traffic, taking on multiple defenders or trying to thread the needle with a home run pass. That's when he gets into trouble, and it usually results in a costly turnover (he has 13 of them in five Finals games).
It's hard for a player as talented as Cousins, but for now he has to lower his expectations for himself. Just be Ed Davis with a jump shot. Cousins was quick and decisive in Game 5, and it yielded positive results. If he can stick to the basics -- put-backs, open 3-pointers, dribble hand-offs -- that might just be enough to give them the contribution they need, and offset the defensive liability he inevitably will bring.
When Cousins signed with the Warriors last summer he was viewed as a luxury. As Game 6 nears, he'll now play a tremendous part, one way or another, in deciding the fate of the Warriors dynasty.
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