TORONTO — It has become apparent that the Warriors have a crucial decision to make and that they’ll have to proceed with extreme skill throughout the process.
What to do with DeMarcus Cousins, who will be active for Game 1 of the NBA Finals?
Cousins was the starting center until he went down with a torn left quadriceps muscle on April 15 in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Six weeks later, with the NBA Finals on deck, he says he’s “healed for the most part” and clearly is anxious to play.
“If this were the regular season, I would throw him out there and he would play whatever minutes he could tolerate and we would build him up from there,” Kerr said Wednesday. “This is not the regular season.
“This is The Finals, so we have to figure out what's the best way to utilize him, how many minutes can he play, what the game feels like, what the matchups are like. Some of that will be determined by what's happening in the game, and the other stuff is just internal with our staff.”
It would be risky to put Cousins in the starting lineup immediately after such a long layoff. It might be risky, with so much on the line, to put Cousins on the floor at all.
But it would be a waste of his gifts to restrict him to the bench and lean solely on the centers utilized in his absence. Kerr has manned the position with five different players, from Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney, to Jordan Bell and Damian Jones, with Draymond Green also sliding over from power forward.
Nobody on the team is closer to Cousins than is Green, who acknowledged that Boogie would have a lot to overcome.
“A huuuuuge challenge,” he said. “When you talk about DeMarcus, he's someone who's been great in this league for years now. He's probably not played basketball what, 16 out of the last 19 months, so that right there alone is a challenge in itself. Then you start to talk playoff experience, where you and I both know the intensity level is completely different than a regular-season game, and he doesn't have much playoff experience. And then you get dropped in the NBA Finals?
“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.”
An important part of the equation is Cousins’ desire to play. He’s rehabbing regularly in an effort to participate in a Finals for the first time in his eight-year career. If it were up to him, he’d be on the court for the opening tip Thursday night.
“That's the thing, it's never really up to me,” he said. “We'll put our heads together and come up with the best plan moving forward.”
Asked about his readiness, Cousins was honest as usual.
”That's hard to determine with most athletes,” he said. “We're stubborn. We're bullheaded. We feel like we can fight through anything. And that's not always the best case for the individual. So obviously we'll come together and figure out the best plan for me.”
The best plan, at least at the start, would seem to be playing Cousins off the bench. Evaluate his rhythm and fitness level in game conditions. If he is effective, stay with that plan. If he is not, have a chat with the big man.
Which brings us back to Green’s “suburban kid in the ‘hood” analogy.
“You just revert to what you know. You do whatever it is that you know,” Green said. “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,” Green added. “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.”
The Raptors are going to start Marc Gasol at center. He’s 7-foot-1, 260 pounds. Cousins is a reasonable physical matchup. So, too, is Bogut.
Yet no Warriors center has been more effective this postseason than Looney, who is four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gasol.
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Now that Cousins is physically cleared, he has to play. He should play. He must play.
But his every move should be studied. If he’s productive, exhale and enjoy. If he’s not, well, there are five other options.