Nearly a year after rupturing his Achilles tendon, DeMarcus Cousins–the star center who decided to rehab with the defending champion Warriors, just for kicks–made his long-awaited debut. As if it weren’t enough for Golden State to have three of the best shooters in the history of the sport, they now add a burly, highly skilled big to shore up their only position of relative weakness. The Clippers were the first to see this battle station at full effect, and after hanging admirably through a few quarters of play, saw it all slip away with a 112-94 loss.
The man of the hour was at once rusty, intuitive, engaged, and imposing. He totaled 14 points (including three three-pointers), six rebounds, and three assists in just 15 minutes of play. Here are a few takeaways from that initial performance:
• The most reassuring thing about Cousins’s debut was the way he ran the floor. Cousins has long been a reluctant roll man, idling instead at the point of his ball screens or, in more recent years, popping out to the three-point line. It was meaningful, then, that the first bucket of his season was a rumbling dunk without the slightest hesitation. From the moment Cousins set his screen for Kevin Durant, there was no doubt as to where he was going–particularly when both defenders involved in the play (the entangled Tobias Harris and Marcin Gortat) followed Durant. In that we see the benefit of the Warriors holding Cousins out of the lineup for as long as they did. Perhaps he could have played, in some form, weeks ago. Yet by giving him time to build strength and confidence in his once-ruptured Achilles, Golden State ensured that it’s mid-level exception jackpot would be that much more able.
Cousins rewarded their patience by sprinting hard in transition every chance he could. When there wasn’t an opportunity for a layup, Cousins ran deep into the paint for a deep seal. We’ll see how his enthusiasm holds when he’s accustomed to playing NBA games on a regular basis again, but his efforts in this game did not go unnoticed. The rest of the Warriors were eager to get Cousins the ball whenever possible, which is how he wound up taking 11 shots from the field in just 15 minutes of play. Some of his moves looked natural. Others looked like they hadn’t been dusted off in a year. No matter the results, Cousins kept running, rolling, and bodying up. It’s a new day.
• Cousins only deepens the Warriors’ matchup nightmare. We’re one game into this wild experiment and already Cousins is putting opponents in a bind. To assign some smaller, slighter center to defend Cousins would be madness; even in his current state, he’s just too big and too physical for smaller bigs to handle. Yet when opponents put more size into play (as the Clippers did with Boban Marjanović in the second half), then Cousins will pop out to the three-point line and challenge those plodders to chase him. That Cousins shoots so well makes him an especially punishing screener away from the ball. What is a defense to do when Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant curls around a Cousins screen and bolts down the lane? The gravity goes with them, leaving the 6’11” adopted Splash Brother to fire away without the slightest contest.
There are ways for defenses to junk up games around lesser threats like Kevon Looney, cutting corners to focus on the future Hall of Famers rather than their workman counterpart. Cousins doesn’t offer the same latitude. It’s not just the post play or the perimeter shooting, but the way that both of those skill sets intersect with what is already the most talent-rich roster in the league. This was very much an orientation game for Cousins and his new teammates, but their easy chemistry hinted at the challenge to come in keeping all of these stars covered at once–a challenge that may be the only thing standing between the Warriors and a third straight title.
• Expect more foul trouble to come. This wasn’t a terribly demanding game for Cousins, in the sense that his lateral quickness wasn’t repeatedly put to the test. Even still, Cousins had some occasional issues squaring up his body against drives and rotating over in time to contest shots around the rim. It took him just 15 minutes to foul out of the game to roaring applause.
In fairness to Cousins, this was one of the more unusually officiated games of the season. Incidental contact was treated as grave sin. This was particularly bad news for Cousins, who has always been a bit foul-prone and isn’t yet moving at full speed. There are health considerations in play when it comes to deciding how much and how often Cousins will actually play over the next few weeks, but the rate at which Cousins fouls might work as an artificial minutes limit. We knew that it would be difficult for Cousins to grind through possession after possession in the post, considering the way that low-block players use their footwork to create leverage. Even in this game, Cousins appeared to be stalled by contact that he would shrug off at full health. It comes with the territory of a lengthy rehabilitation. Where Cousins feels his Achilles most, however, may be in the way he shuffles on defense and how many fouls he picks up in delay.
Cousins and the Warriors play their next game against the Lakers–again in Los Angeles–on Monday.