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Warriors already onto something with Cousins

Veteran big man gives Golden State real presence in the middle

LOS ANGELES — Well, the Kevon Looney Era was good while it lasted. So was that of Festus Ezeli, of JaVale McGee, of Anderson Varejao, of Andrew Bogut, of Jordan Bell and, of course, the Zaza. Who will ever forget the Zaza?

They were all fine men and devoted teammates who suited up every night at center and did whatever the Golden State Warriors asked of them, which means not much because the demands weren’t, shall we say, steep, or extending beyond what their skills were capable of offering.

For the first time since the Warriors began collecting jewelry, they have a body in the middle who could put the other team, and certainly all the referees, on notice almost every night.

On Friday, DeMarcus Cousins officially brought his four All-Star honors along with a surgically-repaired Achilles’ tendon to the mix against the Clippers. And the two-time defending champs — certainly not deprived of talent — are nonetheless hoping their title chances in the Cousins Era will mirror his first basket of the season: A slam dunk.

Cousins made a grand entrance that was 11 months in the planning, roughly the duration of his rehabilitation. Set up perfectly by Kevin Durant on the pick-and-roll just 90 seconds into the game, Cousins took a bounce pass and shook the rim, punctuating the dunk with a satisfying scream and a stinkface for effect.

“Just glad to know I can still dunk,” he said. “It felt good. Never in a million years would I have thought a dunk would be my first basket coming back.”

You can understand the outbreak of pent-up emotion. When Cousins fell hard to the floor last January, he was a member of the Pelicans and prepping for a big free agent payday that summer. Sadly, he didn’t get that cash because of the serious injury, and not-so-sadly, he left the Pelicans for the formidable Warriors, who now run out a starting five that have each made multiple trips to the All-Star Game.

Cousins is working on the cheap, so to speak, this season, yet has drastically increased his odds of cashing in on his first title by playing alongside Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

One night, encouraging as it was — 14 points, six rebounds and 15 not-so-exhausting minutes — didn’t unlock all the questions swirling around Cousins and his body and how he’ll fit with his decorated teammates and the uptempo style they often play. For the time being, it’ll do.

“I felt like a kid on Christmas,” he said. “It’s been a long journey. It was one of the best days of my life being on the floor again playing the game I love. My teammates supported me this entire process. Made it easy as possible for me. They understood my struggle.”

Cousins, at age 28, should still be in the prime stage of a solid career — a center with a collection of offensive skills that set him apart from his peers. Yet he knows all too well about the history of players recovering from such a debilitating injury; only Dominique Wilkins bounced back to All-Star form. Plus, Cousins is a big man carrying a listed 270 pounds. That’s not an obvious recipe for continued of success.

With the Warriors, there’s no urgency from a basketball perspective. Golden State won three titles without him and, with him, are heavily favored to add a fourth. He’s a bonus, an insurance policy, or perhaps even a final piece to another celebratory result come June.

Between now and then, the Warriors and Cousins will go about the business of searching for a tailored fit. It’s something that coach Steve Kerr says will be a challenge, though a pleasant one, he suspects.

“We’ve got to figure out how all that works with rotations and substitution patterns and ease him back,” Kerr said. “We’ve already had discussions as a staff and team. We’re just trying to win. That means players have to accept roles and accept that some nights it’s their nights and other nights it’s someone else’s night. As long as we’re in step as a team — and we’ve established that over the years.”

There’s another element at work here: Cousins is playing for money this summer as a free agent. He was in line for a nine-figure payday before his injury, but didn’t receive any offers after, which led him to the Warriors on a one-year deal. Cousins figured if he couldn’t cash in right away, he might as well play for a more economical wage with the league’s best team.

Will Cousins put aside personal goals and accept lesser touches for the good of the Warriors and the championship chase? On this team, he might not even be the third option.

In that sense, Kerr doesn’t want Cousins to feel any outward pressure to be his pre-injury self right away.

“It’s been a year since his injury but this is almost like training camp,” Kerr said. “The game is going to be moving fast. He’s got to get his legs, feel comfortable with his new teammates. These things take time. I think that’s the biggest message. This is not the end of the story, it’s the middle of the story. It’s a milestone and there’s a long way to go.”

By all accounts, Cousins has the support of the locker room. NBA players are a fraternity and in this case, they know Cousins missed out on riches. They realize the sacrifice he’s making -— or was forced to make -— and sympathize. That much was evident a split-second after Cousins’ dunk; the entire Warriors’ bench went airborne in celebration.

And after Cousins fouled out, he walked to a bench full of teammates who smothered him with a standing ovation and high fives. He chuckled at that.

“Probably the fakest love I ever seen,” he said, laughing.

The first game presented the full Cousins experience: Good shots, a few solid plays, and arguing over foul calls. If this is any indication, Cousins will be hard to miss on the floor, even among All-Star teammates

I felt like a kid on Christmas. It’s been a long journey. It was one of the best days of my life being on the floor again playing the game I love

Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins

And he appears at ease with the Warriors. Over several years, he developed a reputation as a sulking, moody and temperamental star with a Kings franchise that never made the playoffs with him. Part of it was immaturity, which led to suspensions, and part due to the misery of the Kings, who drafted poorly and failed in almost every effort to give Cousins help.

He went to a better place after being traded to the Pelicans two Februarys ago, but the injury prevented him from gaining any traction with the Pelicans.

With the Warriors and ample talent around him, Cousins feels totally unburdened from expectations. It’s not too unlike his stint with Team USA, in that both the Olympians and the Warriors are embarrassment of riches.

Cousins, for instance, was caught off-guard by the lack of defenders thrown his way Friday by the Clippers, who couldn’t afford to leave Thompson or Durant or Curry open.

“This is a first,” Cousins said. “I definitely can get used to this.”

There were the expected moments when he stumbled with the ball and was out of sync on the floor. Cousins chalked most of it up to nerves, but also his lack of preparation with the team.

“Every time I touched the ball I felt like I was going to travel, going to trip over my feet,” he said. “I just had to take my time with my decisions. And then I was feeling my rhythm.”

He hit three of his four 3-pointers, which shows how easily he can fit right in with the long-ball Warriors if that continues. That’s they lacked in the starting centers who came before him. None were remotely this offensively gifted.

“I like that he’s going to keep people honest at the three-point line,” said Durant. “He was running the floor, setting screens, just playing his game. In 15 minutes, he had 14 points and six rebounds so turn that to 25 minutes, that’s an easy 20 and 10. I like where he’s going. It was a good first step and hopefully he keeps moving forward.”

Of course, the next game might not be as friendly for Cousins. Comebacks can turn drastically without much warning; such is the unpredictability of the body and timing and dealing with a new situation.

“We’re all just trying to reassure him that it’s not just about tonight,” Kerr said. “There will be a lot of criticism and judgments and maybe compliments. He’s going to get a lot of love, or a lot of ‘Is this a fit?’

One of good things about him being here the first few months, he’s got an up close look at the world we live in, where when we lose a game it’s the end of the world to a lot of people. He’s felt that and he knows the spotlight’s going to be on him, good or bad, and he’s got to take it for what it is.”

Said Cousins: “You get judged by your every moment. As long as the guys in the room know what the situation is and ultimate goal, that’s all that matters.”

And then he said something else, something that could send chills around a league that’s already fretting over the Warriors:

“We can get a whole lot better.

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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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