Despite being drafted fifth overall by the Sacramento Kings in 2010 and considered one of the best centers in the NBA for several consecutive seasons, before joining the Los Angeles Clippers this year, DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins had played in only eight playoff games his entire career.
It might explain why the 6-foot-10 center has been anything but shy in his three appearances this postseason for the Clippers, most recently on Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix, a 114-120 Suns victory that was played just 36 hours after the Clippers eliminated the Jazz in the second round.
In only 13 minutes, Cousins scored 11 points on 10 shots and added four rebounds (three offensive), one assist, one block and five personal fouls.
The short turnaround between series was the primary reason Cousins saw minutes on Sunday, as Clippers head coach Ty Lue tried to give his usual rotation a chance to catch its breath. But obviously, Cousins was far from just a warm body on the floor, and though he struggled defensively at times, circumstances beyond overall team fatigue could mean he will see more minutes going forward.
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Cousins Begins With a Dunk (and a Slap)
Entering the game at the start of the second quarter, Cousins immediately made waves — using a beautiful interior feed from Rajon Rondo on L.A.’s first possession of the quarter to posterize the Suns’ vertically-challenged Dario Saric, who, before crumbling to the ground, added insult to injury with a foul. (In addition to a free throw, the dunk also earned Cousins a well-intentioned slap in the face from teammate Patrick Beverley.)
Cousins missed the foul shot but grabbed the offensive rebound, missing the follow-up from about three feet. Shortly thereafter, Cousins scored a layup, sank two free throws, made another layup on a nifty post-position spin move, and then drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to put the Clippers up two with 7:17 remaining in the quarter.
After the game, coach Ty Lue said he was pleased with Cousins’ play, even though most of the big man’s production came in the first half, as a change in Phoenix’s defensive philosophy all but eliminated Boogie’s effectiveness in the second half. (Cousins posted zero points, one rebound and one block in five and a half minutes of second-half action.)
“I thought he did a good job, especially the first half,” Lue said to reporters. “Second half, they tried to go to the front [so] we couldn’t really get him the basketball like we wanted to. But I thought in the first half he really gave us a big spark off the bench.”
Heading into the game, 10 days had passed since Cousins last saw the floor, back in Game 2 of the Utah series. Prior to that, he played just four minutes in Game 1 against the Jazz and not at all in the first round against Dallas. With that kind of pine time, staying warm is not exactly easy, but Cousins has been doing what he can to stay ready, even if that involves ingesting more liquid stimulation than usual.
“Just trying be ready at all times, keeping myself wired on the sideline,” Cousins told reporters after the game. In three playoff games this season, Cousins is averaging 6.7 field goal attempts, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 personal fouls in just over nine minutes of playing time. “I don’t know when my name [will be] called, but I just want to be ready when it is. A lot of hot packs, a lot of coffee, a lot of all of the above, and whatever it takes.”
Defending Phoenix Presents Problems for Cousins
Judging from the dunk over Saric and some of the other things he did on offense, it’s clear Cousins can still put points on the board — something the Clippers may need more than ever given the uncertainty of Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury and Serge Ibaka’s season-ending back surgery. Furthermore, if Marcus Morris, who tweaked his knee in the first half and played only five minutes in the second, is limited going forward, the Clippers will likely look to Cousins for even more production.
But the big problem is Cousin’s defense, particularly against a Phoenix team that likes to spread the floor and work Devin Booker off high screens, often creating wide-open opportunities down low for the Suns’ 22-year-old center Deandre Ayton, who scored 20 points in Game 1 and is shooting 71.6% from the field in 11 games this postseason.
Neither Utah or Dallas had any such threat on the interior, allowing the Clippers to remain mostly small in their rotations. But against Ayton and Phoenix, the Clippers will need to find a way to cut down Ayton’s looks. This could prove especially difficult if and when Phoenix’s superstar playmaker Chris Paul returns to action after being in the league’s COVID-19 protocol.
Age and three major leg injuries in the last three years have slowed Cousins down considerably, making it hard sometimes for him to contest shots on the perimeter and move his feet in the paint, a perfect storm against a team like Phoenix. Cousins was -11 on the game, and a big part of that was due to overextending on Booker and thereby putting himself out of position when Booker dished.
“A lot of situations where we over-helped, myself in particular,” said Cousins. “You know, we gave [Ayton] that naked role down the middle. They keep the floor spread. They use the pick-and-roll to suck guys in, and we just have to do a better job of being in our rotations and not over-helping and being in the correct spot.”
But Cousins is nonetheless optimistic that Lue and the Clippers, as they did in the first two rounds, will figure things out as the series goes on. And he took it as a good sign that the game was so close despite the quick turnaround from the Utah series.
“Obviously we took some positives out of this game,” said Cousins. “We realize we made a lot of mistakes, and all the factors that played into coming into the game, the quick turnaround, all that. We lost by two baskets, which is a sign that we obviously can correct a lot of our mistakes … It’s on us to make these adjustments and just come out and have a better showing.”