The Golden State Warriors are knocking on the door. Or at least they’re trying to.
The Toronto Raptors have controlled Game 1 for most of the night, but the Warriors keep making mini-runs. Both teams are relying on their role guys to hold down the fort while their superstars get a quick breather.
With roughly nine minutes left, one of the game’s most important plays is made.
The Warriors flow in the half-court. A down screen by DeMarcus Cousins gives Klay Thompson a sliver of daylight on the left wing. The Raptors blitz Thompson to close off that airspace. Thompson quickly makes the advantage pass to his rolling big.
Cousins catches in rhythm and meanders to the rim. He gets to a favorable spot, but Kyle Lowry gets there first.
It’s another low moment in a pedestrian Finals debut for Cousins. Three points on 0-of-2 shooting, a pair of dimes, two steals and that turnover. The Warriors were outscored by one point with Cousins on the floor. It isn’t a bad mark on its own. But for a team trying to fill a Kevin Durant-sized void, any negatives feel like a death sentence.
However, then contrast that with this play from Game 2:
It’s a similar look with Thompson curling off a screen, the Raptors blitzing it and Cousins getting a short-roll opportunity.
The difference is the patience displayed by Cousins. The hard gather effectively takes the rotating Fred VanVleet out the play and allows Cousins to flourish. He’s much better in Game 2, finishing with 11-10-6 and a team-high plus-12.
With Thompson dealing with a hamstring strain and Kevon Looney likely out for the series, Cousins’ talents are now even more necessary.
a passing hub
The Warriors are a historically dominant team. It’s easy to point to their talent: Even without Durant or (possibly) Thompson, the Stephen Curry-Cousins duo is a booger, and that’s before you get into the playmaking ability of Draymond Green.
Beyond their talent, the way that talent is leveraged is what keeps all the opposing teams up at night.
The barrage of off-ball screening and hard cuts keep defenders on high alert. Paying too much attention to that screening can leave the backside of the defense exposed. Ignoring it to focus on an individual assignment leaves a teammate without help.
Cousins is a plus passer, (always has been, folks), both in the half-court and in transition. His grab-and-go ability allows the other Warriors to run and put pressure on the defense. Sticking tight to those guys means Cousins has a one-on-one with a reeling big man. That’s no bueno.
Trying to cut off a driving lane for Cousins isn’t a safe bet either:
Pay attention to how scrambled the matchups are: Marc Gasol is originally on Andre Iguodala. Kawhi Leonard is trailing Thompson. Pascal Siakam has Green, leaving Lowry with the Cousins matchup. Gasol switches onto Thompson since Kawhi is behind, leaving Iguodala open in the corner.
But Cousins does a fantastic job of forcing the issue with a hard drive, then making the corner skip with no hope of help coming. His touch can be maximized in the half-court.
The Warriors love to station Cousins above the elbows for a couple of reasons: He’s mostly able to see over the top of the defense, giving him a larger window to find passing angles. The other is that he’s a shoot-or-drive threat from the perimeter.
That forces opposing bigs to play up, which compromises the help when the Warriors go to their screening action.
Above, the Warriors inbound to Cousins as Thompson and Shaun Livingston do their two-man dance. A flex screen set by Thompson sends the Raptors defense into a temporary frenzy. Livingston roams free, and Cousins picks him out for the bucket.
wearing down the defense
At full strength, the Warriors are able to make these kind of cuts and reads because there’s no real way to defend them. Switching leads to unfavorable matchups. Blitzing pick-and-rolls leads to 4-on-3s. Even simple drives are hard to defend because sending help may leave a shooter open.
But the Warriors obviously aren’t at full strength now, leading to some issues in the half-court.
In Game 1, the Raptors were able to shrink the floor by helping off of non-shooters. With Looney or Jordan Bell in the game, the Raptors essentially ignored them when they were on the perimeter. You can’t comfortably do that with Cousins, and that’s something the Warriors have to leverage more moving forward.
Green surveys the action on the left block in the clip above. Thompson lifts up the floor with Lowry on him, drawing the eyeballs of Gasol. Gasol knows that Thompson can rise up without much issue. You can see him shift towards Thompson on the catch. Thompson re-enters the ball to Green, who then finds Cousins with tons of space to shoot.
Having Cousins at the top of the key is an issue for defenses because he can shoot or drive—or even, drive and shoot. Most bigs just don’t have the combination of lateral quickness and strength to handle Cousins (even this clearly still-conditioning version) off the bounce.
That is Serge Ibaka above—a pretty good defender. He presses Cousins here, and Cousins uses that momentum against him with the drive. Lowry tries to slide in for a charge, but Cousins nimbly avoids him and finishes with the righty scoop.
Downhill Cousins is simply a monster to deal with.
Expecting the 25-14-5 version of Cousins may be a bit much. Game 3 will be his third appearance post-injury, and he still isn’t moving well. He’s often needing to walk through offensive sets, much less to get up and down the court. He can be targeted on defense (and always has). The Warriors will now play an especially dicey give-or-take game with him defensively because of these lingering lateral quickness issues that aren’t going to clear up until a full offseason of rest and workouts.
Still, Cousins has the kind of skill set to help unlock the Warriors in the half-court and transition.
The Warriors will need him to consistently play like the Game 2 version if they hope to take control of this series, much less to survive until the fabled Return of Durant.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.