TORONTO — About 30 minutes after the Warriors evened the 2019 NBA Finals against the Raptors at one game apiece, a Golden State media relations official approached DeMarcus Cousins to share his postgame itinerary: A national television hit, podium appearances and an exclusive with NBC Sports Bay Area's Kerith Burke.
"Oh, I get to go in the big room now?" Cousins responded.
For nearly two months, Cousins has been waiting to get back into the Warriors’ championship aura, rehabbing a torn quad in the shadows as his team trudged through another playoff run under the presumption that he might not return.
But Sunday night, in just his second game back from his latest injury, Cousins tallied 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, simultaneously playing his way back in the starting lineup and keeping Golden State's season alive.
"He was fantastic," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the 109-104 win at Scotiabank Arena. "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."
In Cousins' return in Game 1 on Thursday, he played just eight minutes, finishing with two points and no field goals. Still, with Golden State surrendering 40 points in the paint, a bigger body was needed, allowing for Cousins to make just his third career playoff start Sunday.
"We came in thinking, all right, he can maybe play 20 minutes,” Kerr said. "He gave us almost 28."
What followed was the most important performance of his career. Aside from his offense, Cousins finished the third quarter -- when the Warriors outscored the Raptors 34-21 -- a plus-17 from the floor, adding three rebounds, three assists and one block, helping Golden State take a 88-80 lead into the fourth quarter.
"He was fantastic, and we needed everything he gave out there," Kerr said. "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."
Sunday's performance -- or the rest of this season, for that matter -- seemed unlikely almost two months ago, when Cousins tumbled to the ground early in a first-round matchup against the LA Clippers, tearing his right quad.
The injury, which could force a player to miss 6 to 10 weeks, appeared to all but end his season. However, team doctors didn't rule him out, leaving a possibility for Cousins to return to the lineup for the Finals.
"Once they told me I had a chance, a slight chance, of being able to return, it basically was up to me and the work and the time I put in behind the injury," Cousins said. "It was up to me."
In the days after he ditched his crutches, Cousins continued to stay with the Warriors during the playoffs -- frequently participating in post-practice shooting drills, timing his rehab around Golden State's schedule. As the Finals approached, he vowed to be a part of the spectacle.
For much of his career, Cousins has been the quintessential great player surrounded by dysfunction and losing. In six seasons in Sacramento, his Kings teams never won more than 33 games. Hours after the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, providing a fresh start alongside Anthony Davis.
But with his first postseason in sight in 2018, the big man tore his right Achilles tendon in January, and never played for New Orleans again.
After signing with the Warriors last summer, Cousins continued a rigorous rehab, returning in January to average 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists in his final 30 games with the Warriors. Now, after his latest return and the Warriors' laundry list of injuries, Cousins has a chance to help deliver a third consecutive NBA title to the Bay Area.
"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."
Shortly after his press conference alongside Stephen Curry, Cousins crept behind a black curtain, fulfilled his NBC obligations and headed toward the team bus, ready to earn another appearance in the big room.
"I don't take any of this for granted," Cousins said. "I've seen how quick this game can be taken away from you. So every chance I get to go out there and play, I'm going to leave it on the floor."