HOUSTON — No regular-season game means all that much for a couple of rivals that played seven games in the Western Conference finals last season.
So nobody wanted to jump to any grand conclusions after the Golden State Warriors held on for a 106-104 win Wednesday over the Houston Rockets, a team that has established itself over the past two seasons as the two-time defending champions’ primary challengers.
“We didn’t learn nothing that we didn’t already know,” guard Chris Paul said after the Rockets’ nine-game winning streak was snapped and any realistic hope of catching the Warriors for the West’s top seed was extinguished. “We done played them enough times where they know us, and we know them.”
There is, however, a 6-foot-11, 270-pound wild card in the equation that wasn’t around for the West finals last year. Nor was DeMarcus Cousins available for the Warriors’ first two meetings against the Rockets this season, while he was still recovering from the torn Achilles tendon that made it possible for Golden State to add an All-Star big man for the taxpayer’s exception. And he was a liability in the Warriors’ Feb. 23 loss to the Rockets, a nonfactor offensively and picked on defensively.
But the version of Cousins that showed up to the Toyota Center on Wednesday is capable of altering the dynamic of a playoff series, particularly against the undersized Rockets. This was by far the best “Boogie” has been for the Warriors, setting season highs with 27 points and seven assists, repeatedly bullying the Rockets on the block.
In short, Cousins was as dominant as he has been since before his injury, which he suffered in the final minute of a triple-double performance last January in which he helped the New Orleans Pelicans hand Houston its first loss when the Rockets’ star trio — Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela — was all healthy.
“He just played probably the most complete game since he’s been here,” said Klay Thompson, whose 30 points included three layups and a 3-pointer off feeds from Cousins. “I mean, I was getting wide-open looks from his passing ability. He adds a whole new dimension to our team.
“You saw what he can do with us tonight.”
When Cousins settled for a one-year deal with Golden State, a lot of folks figured he could be a solution to the Rockets’ switch-intensive defensive scheme that often baited the Warriors into relying on isolation instead of their typically beautiful ball movement. Good luck asking a guard to keep Cousins from feasting in the paint.
But the Rockets have scrapped much of their switching due to different personnel. Cousins did the majority of his damage Wednesday against Capela, but Houston’s center didn’t seem too concerned after the Warriors’ lone win over the Rockets this season.
“For us, he’s not the main focus because we are really trying to take away 3s and make them score in the paint,” Capela said. “So [he] did a good job and I’m not worried about that.”
Nor was Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, saying, “Cousins will get what Cousins gets.” D’Antoni also mentioned that physical Rockets reserve center Nene would hopefully be able to help make it tougher for Cousins to dominate down low, which made the decision to rest Nene on Wednesday a bit curious.
“I don’t think anybody can stop me 1-on-1, period,” said Cousins, who was 11-of-16 from the field. “You can put whoever you want on me, honestly.”
Cousins clearly wasn’t a focal point of the Rockets’ defensive game plan even with Kevin Durant out because of a sprained right ankle. For Cousins, that’s kind of the beauty of blending in with a team that has arguably as much offensive firepower as any in NBA history.
The downside to that: Cousins has often been an offensive afterthought in the nearly two months he has been playing for the Warriors, as they’ve struggled to find ways to feature the kind of low-post weapon they’ve never had.
“We’ve all got to learn — me, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I’ve got to learn how to use him better. I thought we used him better tonight. He did a phenomenal job of just getting down on the block and controlling the game down there.”
According to Second Spectrum, the Warriors got Cousins the ball on 18 post-ups, the second most by any player during Kerr’s five seasons. He had 64 total touches, creating 43 points — the 0.67 points created per touch was Cousins’ best in any game over the past two seasons.
The Warriors’ offense hummed using Cousins as a hub with an offensive rating of 118.3 in his 32 minutes. And Houston wasn’t able to pick on Cousins on the other end (104.9 defensive rating), as he spent much of the night hiding on PJ Tucker.
“Tonight was a good step,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said, speaking specifically about Cousins. “It’s obviously the regular season and a lot more work to do, but I think the way he played the entire minutes he was out there, you knew where No. 0 is at all times.”
And, unlike when the Warriors last saw the Rockets, you could envision Cousins being a force if the rivals meet again in May.