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DeMarcus Cousins goes from playoff outcast to NBA Finals starter

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TORONTO – Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson stood around the corner from the tunnel, greeting their fellow Warriors – and Drake – after winning Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Everyone from Golden State appeared happy about tying the series, but still relatively even-keeled.

Then, DeMarcus Cousins came through.

“Ahhhh!” Cousins yelled while flexing. “Hell yeah! Hell yeah!”

Unlike other Warriors, Cousins hasn’t experienced this before. While they were winning three championships in four years, he was toiling with the Kings then getting hurt with the Pelicans. While Golden State advanced through this postseason, Cousins sat sidelined with another injury Warriors coach Steve Kerr thought would be season-ending.

But Cousins worked his way back and even into a surprisingly important contributor.

“I want to be on this stage,” said Cousins, who started Game 2 and had 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in 28 minutes. “This is what I’ve worked for my entire career, to be on this stage, to have this opportunity to play for something.”

It was historic when Cousins even played Game 1 of the Finals with only two prior career playoff games. Starting Game 2 of the Finals with only three prior career playoff games? That’s unheard of. Nobody on record has ever been entrusted with that role despite holding so little postseason experience.

Here are the players with the fewest prior career playoff games before their first NBA Finals start since 1984, when the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason:

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Even in prior postseason formats, nobody in the Basketball-Reference database – which tracks Finals starts since 1971 – has started a Finals game with anywhere near so little postseason experience. Kurt Rambis came closest. As a rookie, he started eight playoff games for the 1982 Lakers (sweeps of the Suns and Spurs) then continued starting in Finals.

This was no spot start, either. Especially with Kevon Looney out and Golden State winning Game 2, expect Cousins to start Game 3.

“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. So I thought he was fantastic.”

Toronto repeatedly targeted Cousins’ defense – for good reason. His mobility is limited. But he worked hard enough on that end to hold up fine, and Golden State needs his offensive talent with Durant sidelined. The Raptors had a tough time time defending Cousins without fouling, and when they did, he impressed as a passer.

When Durant returns, maybe Cousins would help more by bolstering the Warriors’ bench. Cousins said he’s willing to do anything.

But, one way or another, he has earned a bigger role in this series.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”

Cameron Reddish quadruples Zion Williamson’s vote total for ‘best career’ in NBA rookie survey

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Zion Williamson is the NBA’s most-hyped rookie – for good reason. He was incredibly productive at Duke, and his jaw-dropping athleticism should help his game translate with the Pelicans. He wasn’t just the consensus No. 1 pick this year. He was viewed as the best prospect in years.

His peers seem less enamored.

Williamson tied for fourth in the NBA’s annual rookie survey when rookies were asked which member of this class would have the best career. The full results:

1. Cam Reddish, Atlanta — 19%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 16%

3. De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta — 11%

4. R.J. Barrett, New York — 5%

Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans — 5%

Coby White, Chicago — 5%

Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 5%

Others receiving votes: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans; Jarrett Culver, Minnesota; Carsen Edwards, Boston; Darius Garland, Cleveland; Rui Hachimura, Washington; Keldon Johnson, San Antonio; Mfiondu Kabengele, LA Clippers; Romeo Langford, Boston; Cody Martin, Charlotte; Eric Paschall, Golden State; Tremont Waters, Boston; Dylan Windler, Cleveland

Reddish – the No. 10 pick – is a surprising top choice. He has plenty of talent and fluid athleticism, but he really struggled at Duke last season. That was a dispiriting development that wouldn’t happen to most players bound for NBA stardom.

I wouldn’t read too much into these results. Of the 42 polled rookies, 81% picked someone other than Reddish.

Still, it’s jarring to see Reddish so far ahead of Williamson.

Williamson didn’t get a majority of votes for Rookie of the Year prediction either, though he at least led that category:

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 35%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 27%

3. R.J. Barrett, New York — 5%

Cam Reddish, Atlanta — 5%

Others receiving votes: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans; Goga Bitadze, Indiana; Brandon Clarke, Memphis; Carsen Edwards, Boston; Darius Garland, Cleveland; Kyle Guy, Sacramento; Rui Hachimura, Washington; Romeo Langford, Boston; Coby White, Chicago; Grant Williams, Boston

It’s close between Williamson and the field for Rookie of the Year. But if picking only one player, how do you pick someone other than Williamson?

Not every rookie takes these questions seriously. Clearly. Here, I think there’s especially an element of wanting to be different. Williamson is such an obvious answer to these questions, I bet many players gave their next answer. When too many do that, it looks silly.

At least the rookies chose Williamson as most athletic. In the only question where someone got a major of votes, Williamson topped 87% of the ballots.