LOS ANGELES — Hours before DeMarcus Cousins’ second game as a Golden State Warrior, Klay Thompson captured the full breadth of Cousins’ appeal as a ballplayer when he praised him as “such a talented, cerebral player. You can plug him anywhere — he’s going to make the right play.”
Thompson experienced these qualities up close on Monday night in the second quarter of the Warriors’ 130-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
First, Cousins freed him up with a pin-down screen, allowing Thompson to catch the ball and go to work at the top of the floor. Then, when Thompson hit traffic, Cousins was available on the wing for a pass. From there, the two-man game ensued.
Thompson darted behind Cousins, playing hide-and-seek with Kyle Kuzma in pursuit. With his gaze straight ahead, Cousins dropped the ball behind his back off the wood so that it bounced directly into Thompson’s hands as he skirted by — basketball choreography of the highest order. And when Kuzma met Thompson on the top side, the sharpshooter reversed course behind Cousins, took a single dribble and launched a 3-pointer.
It wouldn’t be the only time Thompson and Cousins would team up for a nifty dribble-handoff set — the pair clearly have some big man-shooting guard telepathy. And it wouldn’t be the only time over the course of the Warriors’ holiday weekend in Los Angeles that Cousins would reveal the tendencies that make him a natural fit.
This is Warriors basketball at its purest, and although Cousins has logged all of 36 minutes over two games, the style and sensibility appear to be a handsome fit for the six-time All Star. Because for everything that has defined Cousins’ nine-year career — the heft, the histrionics and all the rest of it — Cousins is at his essence the thinking person’s big man.
Though Cousins is more than capable of playing bullyball in the post and excelling in mismatch basketball against smaller defenders (a brand of play Warriors coach Steve Kerr loathes as a matter of principle), his versatile playmaking has a true home with Golden State. Like Andrew Bogut, circa 2015, or Draymond Green, Cousins is an unselfish passer who willfully and often brilliantly facilitates offense from the elbow. Those vintage Warriors splits and staggers, the back doors that so often are available because defenders gravitate to the perimeter against Warriors shooters — Cousins can conduct any and all. He already has tallied eight dimes. Among centers and power forwards, only Nikola Jokic assists at a greater rate.
In this sense, Cousins is as much a creature of 2014-16 Warriors basketball as he is the new Kevin Durant-propelled model. On those occasions when Cousins was spoon-fed the ball in the post with an entry pass, he usually didn’t hold the rock for long. Whether he was hitting Stephen Curry beautifully Friday night or Jonas Jerebko on Monday on basket cuts, Cousins seems cognizant of the Warriors Way — if he’s desperate for a shot out of the post, he’d better sprint the floor for an early seal. Otherwise, unless it’s garbage time, it’s a menu item reserved strictly for Mr. Durant.
As Cousins showed against the Clippers, he’s also an affiliate Splash Brother — a giant cannonball Splash Brother. The smooth-shooting 7-footer who can trail the play, receive the ball and fire from 24 feet. On Friday night, he buried three of his four attempts from beyond the arc, and he went 0-for-2 on Monday from long range. Overall, Cousins shot 7-for-20 from the field and 7-for-9 from the line — a healthy free throw rate that would rank among league leaders.
Those concerned about his conditioning would’ve gotten whiplash watching Cousins sprint down the full length of the floor on a Warriors break, eager and ready to receive a pass from Thompson underneath. Somewhere, George Karl is scratching his head. In both games, Cousins actively ran the floor in both directions, off makes and misses, as is mandatory in a Warriors uniform (except when he was arguing with officials after non-calls on shot attempts).
Defensively, the Warriors have done a nice job of keeping Cousins out of space, using coverage schemes more reminiscent of those of Bogut. Rather than switching onto a ball handler or be up on the screen, Cousins drops back — and the results so far have been positive. The Clippers put Cousins into 14 direct picks — and scored all of five points off those actions, per Second Spectrum data. The Lakers utilize the high screen from their center measurably less often, but on drives, Cousins corralled penetrators capably. He has an enormous reach and quick hands, and they served him well.
Cousins always has been prone to fouling — he has led the league in fouls per game in each of the past five seasons — and the two games in Los Angeles followed form. He was disqualified on Friday, and he racked up four fouls in 21 minutes on Monday. He also is routinely among league leaders in charges drawn, and he took one in each of the games in L.A.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said that his first reaction to learning that Cousins had signed with the Warriors was happiness for the injured center in landing with a squad for which he could rehab without undue pressure. But after that immediate-release empathy, Rivers thought, “That’s not right.” The sentiment was shared by many fans of 29 teams, players and league executives. Never mind that Cousins’ reps were cold-calling front offices to peddle his services to anyone who would listen — the Warriors had once again stacked the deck.
With two games in the books, the naysayers seem correct about this much: The team least in need of additional talent has just activated one of the NBA’s most talented big men.