OAKLAND — If you’re looking for the rare Warriors’ regular season breakthrough, Thursday night provided one: DeMarcus Cousins is no longer on a minute restriction. Golden State’s 125-123 win over the visiting Sacramento Kings marked the first time in nearly 13 months, since he ruptured his Achilles with the New Orleans Pelicans, that Cousins can play as long and hard as he and the coaching staff desire.
In almost every way, this is a positive. We are inching closer to seeing what a lineup of five perennial All-Stars can do at full strength. Cousins’ rehab and return to basketball has gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.
The absence of a minute restriction, however, could lead to a potential “issue” that only the Warriors have: they have more than five closers.
That means Steve Kerr will have to make decisions on a game-by-game basis regarding which quintet to deploy in the game’s final moments, rather than simply relying on the Death Lineup by default. That lineup, with Iguodala included, is largely responsible for Golden State’s three NBA championships in four years. It’s a proven weapon that discards opponents at a ridiculous rate.
Cousins hasn’t experienced life on the bench in the closing minutes — until now. On Thursday, the day that signified his full health, he watched the final 4:48 on the sideline, as the Warriors escaped a late Sacramento surge.
Draymond Green, perhaps the only Warrior as intense and fiery as Cousins, has a hunch: he didn’t like sitting out.
“At this point now, it’s probably starting to piss him off,” Green said postgame about Cousins. “But I know that there will be some games he will close. It’s just kind of the way the cookie crumbles.”
Throughout recent years, everyone involved knew Iguodala would finish games, even if he rarely started them. Golden State’s lack of proven centers helped determine that. Iguodala was always the Warriors’ fifth-best player, at worst, and his versatility and ability to execute just about any assignment was the perfect complement to Golden State’s star-studded quartet of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Green.
But now the Warriors have a center who can shoot from the perimeter and pass, something they never had before. They now have a center who is used to being the closer — not just one of the five guys who finishes the game.
Excluding Cousins from the final five will probably cause him some frustration. But on Thursday, coming off five-day rest for the All-Star break, playing against the fastest team in the league, it made little sense to overwork Cousins, who played 27 minutes.
“I know his conditioning couldn’t have been there because mine wasn’t there for that,” Green said. “Sometimes, I think they have to protect us from ourselves. Come back from the All-Star break, ain’t really done much in a week, for him, you probably want to go out there and play 35 minutes, but is that good for his long-term health? To come back, off really not doing much for a week, and then play 35 minutes? Probably not.”
Green made it clear that Cousins will close his fair share of games. Green said he expects that he may sit out, or that Iguodala will, as Cousins plays the final minutes. It depends on matchups, game flow, foul trouble, and other factors.
Green feels the Warriors coaching staff made the right call in preserving Cousins Thursday night, but he likes that Cousins was bothered by it.
“The way the game ended for him tonight, it won’t be like that for the rest of the year, but you also can’t get DeMarcus to understand that right now because he is a competitor and he wants to close the game,” Green said. “I understand that, and that’s what I appreciate about him. You’d much rather have a guy that wants to be in there than the guy that’s trying to get out of there. I think tonight they protected him from himself, and I think that’s important.”
Every team wants stars. The Warriors have so many that one of their biggest challenges is pleasing all of them.