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.