From the opening tip on Wednesday night, it was impossible to ignore DeMarcus Cousins.
In recent weeks, that's often been the case for the wrong reasons. As he's tried to work his way back into shape and into a new system after losing a year to an Achilles tear, Cousins' defensive limitations have jutted out as much as his immense offensive gifts. And given the way he's been hunted on defense this season by teams far less hungry for iso mismatches than these Houston Rockets, Wednesday's game seemed likely to bring more negative attention.
Instead, Cousins stood out because he made positive plays all over the floor, turning in his best game as a Warrior while leading the defending champs to a 106-104 victory in their final regular-season matchup against their most significant Western Conference challenger.
Cousins' presence and function are of particular fascination against the Rockets because he's the one significant wrench thrown into the machinery of this matchup, which produced a seven-game West finals last spring and may well include a rematch two months from now.
The Rockets came into Wednesday riding a league-best nine-game winning streak that had pulled them to within 2 1/2 games of first place in the conference. They'd also won the first three contests of the season series against the Warriors.
This time, with Kevin Durant sidelined because of an ankle injury, Golden State made a point of spotlighting Cousins early and often. He was the nexus of nearly every offensive possession during his first shift, and he responded by firing darts all over the floor - passes off the short roll, from the top of the key, from the elbow, and from the low post. He even buried a 3-pointer off a pick-and-pop, which is a shot he's struggled with.
Before six minutes elapsed, Cousins had already recorded five points and three assists, with at least two more easy dimes left on the table by Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. He played 32 minutes and finished the game with a team-high 34.4 percent usage rate.
Over the past two seasons, the Warriors have bogged down at times against Houston's switch-everything scheme, baited into perimeter isolations that do a disservice to their breadth of top-end talent. But with his combination of blunt force, vision, and touch, Cousins can crack that coverage and help the Warriors' offense hum. Early in this game, he found himself cross-matched against the much smaller Eric Gordon, immediately took Gordon into the post, got an entry feed, drew several sets of eyeballs, and promptly kicked out to Steph Curry for a three.
That type of play became a recurring theme. It was a bit jarring to see the outside-in Warriors running so much of their offense through the post, but they kept dumping it down to Cousins and he kept rewarding them. When he wasn't beating switches, he was schooling Clint Capela one-on-one. When the Rockets tried to limit his passing after he dished six first-half assists, Cousins took what they gave him and dropped 20 second-half points. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr staggered Cousins' and Green's minutes so the former could be surrounded by shooters and find more space to operate, and those lineups played to a 27.3 net rating.
Overall, Cousins' viability in this matchup comes down to him inflicting more damage on the Rockets' switches than they inflict on him at the defensive end. In that sense, the Warriors almost can't avoid featuring Cousins when he takes the floor, because they need to squeeze out every ounce of his offense to win the trade-off.
He greatly surpassed the break-even point on Wednesday, in part because he also handled himself surprisingly well on defense. The Rockets went after Cousins a lot, looking to put him on an island against James Harden or Chris Paul, but the big man did a good job of anticipating plays, sliding his feet, and keeping his hands up. Paul declined to attack him off the dribble, instead settling for pull-up jumpers. Harden was less merciful, but Cousins still held his own, steering the Beard away from the rim on a handful of drives and even drawing a somewhat dubious charge.
Despite some labored movements, Cousins also snagged a pair of steals and added two deflections. And he was all over the defensive glass, helping the Warriors to a phenomenal 85.7 percent defensive rebound rate while on the floor.
There was still some ugly stuff mixed in there. Cousins' help defense on the back line was wanting, and it's clear he doesn't have much lift right now (he can't get up for shot contests and barely finished a fast-break dunk). But considering Cousins has shouldered a lot of the flak for Golden State's recent defensive woes, this game was a good reminder of the many ways he can be a positive difference-maker.
When the Warriors signed Cousins, this matchup with the Rockets seemed like the one where he'd have the most utility. It may also be the one in which he's most vulnerable. Odds are we haven't seen that pendulum swing for the last time, but at least for a night, the Warriors reoriented their offensive identity around the center. And while their stylistic shifts against the Rockets have typically come on Houston's terms, this time they dictated the change themselves, and Cousins made it pay off.