OAKLAND -- DeMarcus Cousins has 18 games to make his case for consistent minutes in the postseason. His opening argument begins Friday night at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors face the Denver Nuggets.
It’s a crucial game for both teams, as the Warriors have a one-game lead over the Nuggets in the Western Conference and are pursuing the No. 1 overall seed.
It’s a statement game for Cousins, who will be the primary defender on Nikola Jokic, Denver’s 7-foot big man who is concluding the best season by any center in the conference and perhaps the entire NBA.
Because his skills are so comprehensive, Jokic is the perfect opponent to test the defense of an individual (Cousins) and team (the Warriors). He orchestrates much of Denver’s offense; he is tied for fifth in the NBA in assists (7.7) per game and can score at every level, shooting 50.5 percent overall and 32.1 percent from deep.
He’ll be the most challenging opponent Cousins has seen since in five weeks -- since facing 76ers big man Joel Embiid on Jan. 31 -- and can provide an accurate indication of how far Boogie, who made his Warriors debut on Jan. 18, has progressed.
Cousins has been a frequent scapegoat for the Warriors’ many defensive weaknesses. Some of the criticism is deserved, much of it not. He can be slow to rotate, resulting in reaching, which is a quick ticket to foul trouble. He is coming off a yearlong layoff to recover from a severe injury.
He also doesn’t get a lot of help. The Warriors’ defensive statistics have been similar with (108.6 rating) or without Cousins (108.9).
“Our defense has been horse---t no matter who’s in there,” Draymond Green, who also can expect to see plenty of Jokic, conceded this week.
In the wake of being routed 128-95 by the Celtics on Tuesday, coach Steve Kerr mentioned pick-and-roll coverage while citing a need to “simplify” the defense.
“The details defensively always matter, and then the competitive desire on top of that,” said Kerr, singling out pick-and-roll coverage. “If you put all that together, you’ve got a good formula. We’ve got enough defensive-minded players to get it done. We’ll get it done.”
Green said he would make it his personal mission to catalyze the defense, which this season is No. 16 in the league, 15th since Cousins was activated. The Warriors will need to be better, collectively and individually, to succeed in the postseason.
Warriors-Nuggets is about as “postseason” as it gets in March. They could face each other in May, and there is no question Cousins will want to log as many minutes as possible against as many opponents as possible.
The only potential playoff opponent against whom Cousins can expect a reduced role is Houston, where 6-10 center Clint Capela relies on quickness and athleticism.
Most of the others, including Jokic, tend to fall into the category of “classic” centers, big bodies that rely largely on physicality and finesse.
Cousins is on trial for a new contract. He wants to shine, and doing that in a marquee game against an All-Star center would be, for him and for the Warriors, about as good as it can get at this stage of the season.