Barber: Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins enjoying the ride in NBA Finals

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He’s a four-time NBA All-Star and a United States Olympian, the scorer of 12,006 points and grabber of 6,131 rebounds as a pro. And yet before this season, DeMarcus Cousins had never stepped foot on a court in the postseason. He was the greatest player in NBA history with zero playoff experience.

Thus, the two-time defending-champion Warriors adopted an unofficial theme for the 2018-19 season: Win One for Boogie. But with several key players questionable with injuries heading into Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Golden State is tinkering with its approach. The theme now is: Win One With Boogie.

It doesn’t have quite the ring, but it might be better suited for winning a ring.

As Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson take turns supporting one another’s limp and backup center Kevon Looney takes care of his aching chest and Andre Iguodala assesses the beating his 35-year-old body has been taking (though he’s only about 26 when converted to Canadian, apparently), Cousins has emerged as more than a curiosity for the Warriors and Raptors. He is suddenly an important weapon for the former, and a serious concern for the latter.

“He was great,” coach Steve Kerr said of Cousins on Sunday night, after the Warriors’ dramatic 109-104 victory at Toronto in Game 2. “We came in thinking, all right, he can maybe play 20 minutes, and he gave us almost 28. There was only one time in the game when he needed a rest, which was mid-fourth and we gave him a couple minutes and then got him back in the game. But he was fantastic and we needed everything he gave out there — his rebounding, his toughness, his physical presence, getting the ball in the paint, and just playing big, like he does. We needed all of that.”

I see no lie in any of it.

Kerr liked the way his center played in Game 1, too, and so did most of Cousins’ teammates. I thought his performance in that one was mixed. He was pretty good down in the post in his first action in 6½ weeks (following the quad strain he suffered against the Clippers on Apr. 15), zipping those nice passes that have helped to define his ability. But man, he was slow getting up and down the court against the peppy Raptors.

Jordan Bell started at center in that game. It was the first time Cousins had come off the bench since Apr. 5, 2013, his third year in the NBA.

“I told Steve coming into this, whatever he needed from me, I was OK with,” Cousins said. “If it’s coming off the bench, if it’s starting, if it’s playing eight minutes or 40, I’m cool with whatever.”

He started Sunday, a measure of Kerr’s concern after the loss in Game 1. Cousins was also part of the bumbling five-man crew that began the second quarter and was outscored 7-2 by the Toronto reserves in 3 minutes, 19 seconds. It wasn’t like he had gotten a lot faster in Game 2. But the Warriors started making smarter use of him.

They did a better job of limiting the Raptors’ running game in the second half, forcing the Eastern Conference champions to run more half-court sets. And Cousins is highly valuable in the half court. He finished the game with 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a couple blocked shots. Yes, the Raptors exploited him at times — Cousins committed five fouls in his 27 minutes. But he gave back as good as he got.

After two closely contested games, only one Warrior has a plus/minus of greater than plus-4 in this series. It’s Cousins, who is currently at plus-12.

“Puts a lot of pressure on their defense,” Stephen Curry said Sunday night. “And even on our defensive end, making his presence felt blocking shots, being in the right place at the right time. It’s a big lift for us. I know he’s been waiting a long time to be on this stage.”

So, so long. And to get here, Cousins was forced to grind through a yearlong rehab of a torn Achilles’ tendon, only to suffer the quad strain after less than five quarters of playoff action. It was a cruel twist. Cousins carries himself with a certain swagger, even an air of malevolence. He’s no softy. But how could you not pity him for the unlucky hand he’d been dealt over the past year and a half?

There’s no feeling sorry for Cousins now. He is almost certain to start again in Game 3 and beyond. And with the Warriors confirming Monday that Looney fractured the cartilage that connects rib to sternum and is out indefinitely, Cousins’ minutes are likely to increase again.

“It feels great,” Cousins said. “I’ve leaned on my teammates throughout this moment and throughout this whole process, and this was an incredible moment for me. But I’m not satisfied, and I’m looking forward to Game 3.”

And he’s having fun. Cousins may address the NBA’s referees with a permanent scowl, and he isn’t always effusive with reporters. But he has a jolly laugh that emerges once in a while – and an impish streak. Late Sunday night, he posted an Instagram photo of a beaming Boogie being pushed through the airport in a wheelchair by an unfortunate security officer, while Andre Iguodala is being wheeled in the background.

Cousins captioned it, “@andre you good?”

The man has been waiting nine years to play in the NBA Finals. He may as well enjoy the ride.

“I want to be on this stage,” Cousins said. “This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to be on this stage, to have this opportunity to play for something. But once they told me I had a chance, a slight chance, of being able to return, it basically was up to me, and the work and the time I put in behind the injury, it was up to me. So I put the work in and the time in and with God’s grace I’m able to be out here and play the game that I love.”

Cousins added, “I’ve told y’all before, I don’t take any of this for granted. I’ve seen how quick this game can be taken away from you. So every chance I get to go out there and play, I’m going to leave it on the floor.”

He interpreted that literally Sunday, hitting the deck at one point while trying to save a ball from going out of bounds. I’m not gonna lie, I winced a bit as I watched Cousins sprawl. He strained the quad making a hustle play against the Clippers. Heaven forbid he should hurt something else.

But it was an unreasonable suggestion. Cousins wants to be on this stage. And that’s how you play when you reach the NBA Finals.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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