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Column: DeMarcus Cousins vaults from tragic figure to game-changer for Warriors

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks on as Golden State Warriors centre DeMarcus Cousins
Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins drives past Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard during Game 2 of the NBA Finals on June 2. Cousins played a vital role in the Warriors’ win.
(Frank Gunn / Associated Press)

Golden State coach Steve Kerr isn’t the kind of coach willing to reveal big moves (or even little ones) in his pregame media session, his starting lineups becoming state secrets until the last possible moment when the league mandates that he’s got to spill them.

But Sunday evening before Game 2, Kerr dropped a little crumb of truth about his lineups.

“You could see him a little bit more tonight,” Kerr said.

He was talking about DeMarcus Cousins. And by the time the game had ended and the Warriors headed back home with the NBA Finals tied 1-1, “a little bit more” turned out to be quite the understatement.

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Cousins started at center – Kerr’s most obvious adjustment from Game 1 – and played almost 28 minutes, the most on-court time he’s had in almost two months. He finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

“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,” Kerr said afterward. “We needed all of that.”

For Cousins it was a real moment – one where people gathered around his locker afterward to congratulate him. He missed the playoffs last season because of a torn left Achilles tendon, an injury that cost him at least $100 million because it happened right as he was entering free agency.

He ended up signing with the Warriors, a move that was treated like it would obliterate any shreds of competitive balance that still existed, for only $5.3 million. That’s pennies in the NBA economy, a league where 190 players cashed bigger checks from their teams.

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Cousins’ rehab lasted into mid-January, and in the first quarter of the second game of the playoffs, Cousins tore his quad muscle in his left leg.

It was a common fate for players who have suffered Achilles injuries. You rehab that part of your body only to be cruelly reminded that it’s all connected to something else.

“Fairness doesn’t really play a part in this sport. Fairness doesn’t really play a part in life, honestly, but these are the cards I was dealt and all I can do is deal with it however it comes. So I’ll make the best of the situation, which I’ve tried to do,” Cousins said before the series. “Yes, it was tough dealing with the Achilles injury and then overcoming that and then, boom, coming back with another one. But that’s just the cards I was dealt. So I would be lying to say like when it happened I wasn’t thinking to myself, ‘Why me’ or ‘Why now’ or whatever the case may be, but I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason.”

BESTPIX - 2019 NBA Finals - Game One
Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins, left, attempts to block a shot from Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka on June 2.
(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Maybe this was the reason – the post-game smiles, the handshakes, the kind words aimed at Cousins, a player who hasn’t always been the easiest to cheer for.

He was in the middle of toxic situations in Sacramento, unable to control his frustrations and unable to avoid technical fouls. By taking less money to join the Warriors, he looked like a ring-hungry mercenary, threatening the integrity of the league by making an already stacked roster even tougher.

But the injury against the Clippers in the first round erased all of that. It made Cousins a bit of a tragic figure because the things he desired most – his health and an ability to play meaningful games in the playoffs – were so publicly stripped from him.

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And coming back in the NBA Finals after not playing in a game for six weeks isn’t impossible. But it probably wasn’t going to go smoothly.

“It’s kind of like some kid who grew up in the suburbs going to private school and then one day you just got dropped in the ’hood and was told to survive. You got to figure that out. It’s very similar to that,” Draymond Green said before the series began. “Now in saying that, if you’re that kid that’s dropped in the ’hood, like what do you revert to? You just revert to what you know. You do whatever it is that you know. You just try to do that to survive. Well, one thing we do know is DeMarcus is a great basketball player. So at that point then you just go out there and you do what you’re great at. And everything else will fall in line.

“But I think it’s also on us. You know that kid has a much better chance of surviving if he gets with the right group of friends in that neighborhood. It’s on us as his teammates to help pull him through, to get whatever we can out of him to help make us a better team and do whatever we can to put him in the best position to be successful.”

That’s just what happened in Game 2, as Cousins’ first minutes on the court were a little rocky. He was slow to close out on shooters, he missed defensive assignments and the ball didn’t come out of his hands near the basket quite right.

But he settled in and let his skills take over. He threw beautiful passes to get the Warriors buckets. He provided them with an interior toughness they missed in Game 1. He blocked shots and changed others.

He, in so many ways, won the Warriors an NBA Finals game.

“It feels great,” Cousins said afterward. “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.”

The Warriors need three more wins. With Klay Thompson questionable with a hamstring injury, with Kevon Looney out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, with Kevin Durant’s calf still bothering him, Golden State isn’t done needing Cousins.

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And he’s not done needing big games. One moment is great. But as a free agent to be in a market with so many teams ready to spend, Cousins’ NBA Finals will certainly play a role in whether a team like the Lakers decides to offer a big contract.

“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.”

Mission accomplished.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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