2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Cousins returns from injury, returns to form and delivers win

In second game back, two-way performance by Warriors' big man centers a victory

TORONTO — It was the moment the Golden State Warriors waited so long to see, and finally it arrived in the nick of time: The still-recovering former All-Star, out of the starting lineup for more than a minute, returning and dismissing the noise about how the team is better without him by impacting the game in multiple ways and pulling them to victory.

And get this: If the Warriors are truly fortunate, Kevin Durant will recover soon and duplicate what DeMarcus Cousins just did — in The Finals.

If he does, it could serve a critical blow to Toronto’s chances of pulling off a late-series surprise.

“We know what we’re dealing with here,” said Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.

Cousins provided the help that the two-time defending champions needed Sunday to draw even in the series and snatch momentum with a 109-104 victory at Scotiabank Arena. He played more than anyone thought, rebounded more than anyone imagined, defended and scored more than Toronto bargained for, and gave the Warriors what they missed the last 6 1/2 weeks with him on the shelf.

The 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots from Cousins didn’t fully encapsulate how much relief he brought to the Warriors. He had a galvanizing effect on a team that used an 18-0 run to start the second half to seize control of Game 3 and then used Andre Iguodala’s 3-point shot to ice it.

They haven’t been in one piece since April 15, in the first round against the LA Clippers, when Cousins chased a loose ball, stumbled and grabbed his left leg. The torn quad required no surgery but a lengthy rehab period, and this after Cousins went through a 10-month rehab for a torn Achilles’ tendon in the spring of 2018. He was feeling beat up.

Cousins attacked the process anyway, determined to return from an injury that normally would mean the end to his postseason, for the simple reason that he hadn’t been to the playoffs in his career to this point. There’s also a matter of free agency awaiting in July as a strong return could improve his bottom line.

“Once they told me I have a chance, a slight chance, of being able to return, it basically was up to me and the work I put in,” Cousins said. “So I put the work and the time in and with God’s grace I’m able to be out here and play the game I love.”

Cousins was clearly out of rhythm from the layoff in Game 1, his timing rusty, his execution unsure. He played just eight minutes without scoring a basket or drawing much attention from Toronto.

But Warriors coach Steve Kerr made the surprise decision to start Cousins three nights later, and that faith was repaid handsomely. Cousins was active, his confidence growing stronger by the minute — 27 of them, actually, and he only asked to be subbed out once.

“We came in thinking he can maybe play 20 minutes,” Kerr said. “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.”

What the Warriors hoped was for Cousins to be the best big man on the floor. In Game 1, that honor went to Raptors center Marc Gasol, who became a prime scoring option (20 points) by hitting open jumpers. Cousins didn’t give him that amount of breathing space in Game 2, and Gasol (six points) was never a factor.

I want to be on this stage. This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to have this opportunity to play for something.

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins’ teammates offered rave reviews.

Said Stephen Curry: “Obviously you get more comfortable with more minutes and playing aggressive. He puts a lot of pressure on their defense. It’s a big lift for us. More to come.”

Draymond Green said: “The more he plays, the better feel he gets. He was great on both ends. It allowed us to play through him in the post. Toronto knows. They’ve got to honor that, and we know what he’s capable of doing if they don’t.”

Cousins had an amusing reaction to learning he was in the starting lineup — “I was like, ‘Cool’ ” — and feels as though he has more to give.

“When I step on the floor, I’m going to leave it out there,” he said. “I want to be on this stage. This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to have this opportunity to play for something.”

Cousins spent seven years in purgatory in Sacramento, where he racked up losses and technicals. It was a frustrating time for him as he had no faith in the franchise’s leadership and it soured his attitude. His trade to the New Orleans Pelicans two years ago was met with enthusiasm as he teamed with Anthony Davis to form an intimidating front line. His Achilles’ injury cut short his time on the floor and, ultimately, in New Orleans. The team refused to offer him a contract last summer, leading him to join the Warriors at a discount.

Then there’s the matter of Durant.

The two-time Finals MVP hasn’t been cleared for full-contact practice, and the Warriors will hold only one prior to Game 3. Kerr said it’s “feasible” that Durant could play with only one practice under his belt, yet that’s not the ideal scenario.

With the series tied 1-1 and the next two games in Oakland, the timing of Cousins revival means there’s a bit less urgency to see Durant on the floor.

Yet it appears to be a matter of when, not if, Durant will see action in this series. It might be at the perfect moment, with Klay Thompson suffering a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of Game 2 that forced him off the court. The All-Star guard later told Kerr he’s fine and that the hamstring tightness is minor, but his status will be determined by MRI.

Given what’s happened so far, the Warriors can never be too careful or take the rosy view when it comes to muscle issues. They’ve established a theme that tells the story of their 2019 postseason, and it’s not one they designed or even wanted, but it fits their existence nonetheless: “recovery” and their ability to do so on all front.

It’s not just injuries, though. In sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals, Golden State had to recover from deficits of 17, 18 and 17 points. Trailing 1-0 in The Finals, they recovered from 12 down to win on the road for a 23rd straight series — an NBA record.

What the Warriors reminded everyone at Scotiabank Arena — in case folks forgot — is that they’re champions and bring plenty of know-how to this series. They are capable of winning games by any means necessary.

“It’s big respect for them,” said Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard. “They have been here each of the last four years, won the last two, and you’ve got to take the challenge. They’re a great team.”

But the Warriors would rather put a fully-loaded and healthy squad — one that is clearly the class of the NBA — on the court and win with that. These Finals might finally get the Warriors at full strength. If not, they still might be more than the Raptors can handle.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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