DeMarcus Cousins is Here
USA Today Sports
There are good basketball teams and bad basketball teams. Some good teams are run by bad organizations and some bad teams are run by good organizations. For 28-plus years, the Sacramento Kings have been an awful team owned by awful people who did an awful job. The Indiana Pacers have been consistently good in a series of iterations and are run by great people. Whereas Indiana has been a bastion of stability, the Kings have almost always been an Asylum movie like Megashark vs. Crocosaurus (RIP Croc) or Transmorphers; a facsimile of a basketball team that occasionally convinced you it was real.
They played each other last night, and the game turned out more compelling than it looked if you just did a brief once-over of the score. And hey, there wasn’t much of a reason to watch such an uneven matchup. The Knicks were on! You could see some decent human theater, or at least a lot of yelling. The only real tautological question to be answered in Indianapolis was “just how far are the Kings going to get run out of the gym?”
Indiana is anchored around Roy Hibbert, presumptive defensive player of the year and one of maybe five NBA players who loom immutably tall on a court full of other NBA players. His primary role is as an interior wall that blocks shots and rebounds, but he has developed an offensive repertoire since slimming down a few years ago.
Opposite him in the Sacramento frontcourt was DeMarcus Cousins. You know about him by now. Cousins has struggled in previous matchups with Hibbert, but hasn’t played him since the Kings got real owners and a real coach. This matchup is why I watched this game, to measure the progress of the Kings’ young fireball against his biggest obstacle. It wasn’t about the ending.
On the first Pacers’ possession, Roy Hibbert scooted around Cousins and earned an and-1 layup thanks to some bad Jason Thompson help. It looked like more of the same bad basketball and bad losses for Sacramento. The team does not win on the road.
As it turns out, that was almost all of what Hibbert ended up with against Cousins for the whole night. DeMarcus took Hibbert out of his comfort zone and worked with the ball closer to the perimeter. It looks strange to see each team’s biggest players out near the perimeter, like two polar bears dancing in a jungle. While Hibbert needs proximity to the basket to work, Cousins is adaptable and comfortable. Much is made of Hibbert’s verticality when challenging shots, but he couldn’t vector the way he normally does when Cousins put him on the back foot.
The Kings’ other two creators are Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gay. Thomas gets by on charm and pure speed, but the Pacers’ George Hill was too big for the undersized Thomas. For the first time I’ve seen this season, Thomas was truly neutralized. He attempted to go around him, but help was always there. Rudy Gay — who we all decided was good, then decided was bad, and now is good again — could not hang with Paul George, and thus the burden fell to Cousins.
Back to those drives. The strategy behind them was probably as much about geography as it was about direct scoring. Roy Hibbert is an elite shotblocker, and if he’s forced to babysit Cousins on the perimeter, spaces open up and the Kings could theoretically make some shots inside (that is, if they weren’t the Kings). Cousins’ surprising range and quickness meant the Pacers had to live with either opening up the middle or dealing with a momentum-laden Cousins crashing into everything. He plays like a hydrogen molecule, colliding with all opponents and teammates in his path because his makeup dictates it as fact.
The tactics worked, and Hibbert moved out of his comfort zone. Cousins worked his way into the paint from a series of angles and hit two and-1 layups on Hibbert. His position away from the basket also mobilized him on rebounds, which he took to with zeal. He even had a tip-in where he started all the way at the perimeter, somehow evaded three Pacers then controlled and shot the ball, all while moving all of his 280 pounds at maximum speed. Roy Hibbert didn’t even grab a rebound until the second half.
Cousins’ surprising zippiness was most apparent on a play early in the third quarter. Isaiah Thomas disrupted a pass, which fell to Cousins. Hibbert and Paul George started back, but Cousins immediately came rumbling forward. He surged past Hibbert, clearly slower, and ended the largest one-man fast break in NBA history with a half-tomahawk dunk. If the plan was to get Hibbert out of his element, it worked.
He looked disheveled all game, as I’ve noticed a lot of Cousins’ opponents have appeared this year. It looks like the visage of frustration and disbelief, that a dude so feisty and huge can be so graceful and persistent. Hibbert never did anything to Cousins, and never really tried after he was stripped a few times and slammed into Cousins for a charge. When DeMarcus checked out in the second, Hibbert immediately reverted to form and scored two quick baskets on Aaron Gray. This highlighted Cousins’ importance, as if he had a curse on Hibbert that was only activated if they were both on the court.
This is the type of matchup that would have spooked the Cousins of years past. He would have dissolved into histrionics, or slapped his way to an anonymous 20 minute foul out. Best case for early DMC would be a quietly efficient game where he didn’t try to do too much, which is not something Cousins does ever. Not only has he improved to the level where he can hold his ground with elite NBA centers, he is starting to move past them. He just lorded over a consensus top-two post defender, a week after showing up LaMarcus Aldridge.
It’s thrilling to see a new player reach his potential like this, to emphatically stake a claim to interior real estate and then snarlingly defend it against the best players in the league. This is the game where DeMarcus Cousins arrived, more so than ever before. This was angry, full-bore Cousins. He succeeded his way, and his way eroded Roy Hibbert.
The catch here is that the Kings still got blown out. The Pacers bench mangled an inept Kings bench and the usual stability that Sacramento’s starters provide was snuffed out by the excellent Pacers. Cousins didn’t even get to play in the fourth quarter. DeMarcus Cousins may have outplayed Roy Hibbert, but the game’s outcome didn’t reflect that at all. You wouldn’t know it unless you saw it that Cousins had a great game. So he’ll continue having to play like this. He’ll have to scowl and claw and muscle his way through games like this 31-13 gem consistently to garner accolades. He’ll have to do it and he will do it. DeMarcus Cousins is here.