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Remembering that time DeMarcus Cousins Scored 104 Points in Two Games

The media and Dwight Howard have always positioned the Houston big man as some kind of heir to Shaquille O’Neal in the same way it was en vogue for years to saddle two-guards with the dreaded “Next MJ” tag. It was wrong with Dwight in the same way it was wrong with Vince Carter and MJ. The closest thing we have to Shaq is in Sacramento in big barrel chested DeMarcus Cousins. And for the sake of perpetuity, we must not forget what Cousins did over a pair of games in late January 2016.

01-28-16

It was a Saturday night, January 23rd to be exact. The Kings were hosting the run and gun (?) Indiana Pacers of Paul George fame. Boogie, as the big man is known, had already been enjoying a pleasant new month of the new year, posting and toasting all comers to the tune of 31ppg. The Pacers were without defensive stalwart, starting center and possible Francophile Ian Mahinmi. Journeyman Jordan Hill, rotation player Lavoy Allen, and young upstart Myles Turner (fresh off a 31-point game against Golden State) manned the ramparts in his absence. And like any Jaws in any sea, Boogie smelled blood in that water.

Cousins is listed at 6’11”, 270lbs, but I swear to shit this man weighs more than 270lbs. His upper body defies NBA body types. It’s broad with massive shoulders, filled out in the way someone who chops down trees and carries stumps around all day would be with big, tattoo-covered arms. But where he deviates is in his trunk. Many NBA players have the classic v-shape with broad shoulders and narrow waists, but Cousins doesn’t thin out like Dwight. He’s thick all the way through and uses his body in the most Shaq-like of ways to create space and room to breathe to get up little jump hooks and lay-ins.

But life as a Boogie Cousins isn’t about playing the traditional back-to-the basket game. Against the Pacers, Cousins more frequently caught the ball on the wing, which is anti-Shaq/Dwight/tradition. In 2015-16, he has three-point range, which is like Paul Bunyan having the domestic sensibilities of Martha Stewart. Cousins catches on the wing, throws in a couple fakes and the defenders – be it Hill, Allen, or Turner – have to respect it. While taller players like Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis are rewriting concepts about what 7-footers can and can’t do, traditional centers shooting threes are still an evolving species. Defending those players is no easy task for semi-mobile 7-footers and so Cousins making over a three/game has opened up dribble driving attacks that maybe weren’t there earlier in his career. (Prior to this season, Cousins’ had taken 69 threes in his career. This year, in 37 games he’s taken 129 and made four times as many threes than in his entire career.) These defenders have to offer a cushion in defense, but Boogie’s handle is good enough to attack which he loves to do. Throughout the game against Indiana, Cousins repeatedly put the ball on the floor and penetrated. He was often off-balance, had his shots blocked from ending up in terrible position under the hoop, but he was still effective. He drew fouls and made at least six of his 17 field goals on these dribble drives.

Cousins has a sure-footedness you may expect in a giant amateur ballerina. He’s not the most graceful, but in addition to attacking defenders off the dribble, he’ll occasionally hit them with spin moves that leave defenders grasping at air where Cousins used to be. Against the Pacers, on three separate possessions, he found different ways to leverage the spin into buckets. In the second quarter, he caught it in the post, set up Lavoy Allen to overplay to the middle of the lane, took a couple dribbles and with his left shoulder pushed the defender deeper out of position, and once space had been established, pulled a quick spin for a dunk. This spin reminded me of Shaq in all the glory of his power and quickness.

Later the spin accompanied one of his many dribble drives and resulted in a lefty layup make. And finally, feeling Allen overplaying on a post-up, he spun baseline for an unmolested catch and score.

The final tally was a career-high 48 points on 29 shots, a single three, 13-20 from the line a team-best +18, and the Kings fifth straight win.

Two nights later on the Monday when most everyone in the NBA solar system was focusing their undivided attentions on the Spurs at Warriors main event, Sacramento decided to host the Charlotte Hornets. Like the Pacers, these Hornets were shorter than normal and short-handed. Perennial double double Al Jefferson was out with knee surgery and his backup Cody Zeller sat with a shoulder injury. Crying MJ’s Hornets went to battle with a front court that included native Pacific Northwesterners Spencer Hawes and Marvin Williams bolstered by Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Hansbrough off the bench. As Shaq so delightfully enjoys exclaiming: Barbeque Chicken!

And while Warriors-Spurs descended into the East Bay Evisceration, the undermanned Hornets and Kings of Cousins ratcheted up intensities with competitive basketballing. With a banged up crew, the Hornets decided to front Cousins if Williams or Hansbrough guarded him with Hawes or another defender helping on the backside. If Hawes was on Cousins, he’d play behind him. This strategy and the overwhelming physical advantage the Kings had allowed for a different exploitation than what Cousins showed against the Mahinmi-less Pacers. With a weakened frontline, the Hornets were like Goldilocks and Cousins was all three of the bears happy to maul his all-too-human opponents. No less than six times the Hornets ended up fronting Cousins and the Kings, particularly with Rondo recognizing the opportunity, took advantage. Even if Hawes was able to help over, Cousins was too big, too quick, too skilled scored easily.

This time it’s not even Hawes able to help out, but 6’4” Troy Daniels who’s maybe slightly more effective than I would be at pestering Cousins (course I’m 6’3″ 250 and run a 4.5 forty):

But later we see Hawes as the help man and even though he anticipates the post entry, he’s powerless and gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and-1 DeMarcus:

As the game unfolded, it had the feeling of some kind of lopsided battle royal playing out on the basketball court. Cousins and his teammates continued to pound the ball inside, almost growing with greed. A mix of jump hooks, dunks, layups and free throws were there for the picking. But all that post work is exhausting for a man carrying what Cousins has. The catches and fouls, scoring with 240lb-men draped over your shoulders can wear on the biggest ox. As the game shifted into overtime, it felt like a battle of attrition and I wondered who would collapse first: Big Cuz or the entire Hornets front line? Williams fouled after Cousins dunked on him on a lob, then it was Hawes and finally Hansbrough went to the bench with his sixth which left the relatively slight rookie Kaminsky to defend the most dominant post scorer in the league. A bully mentality is a great asset to any big man, but that wasn’t enough for Cousins against Frank the (tiny) Tank. He had the audacity to mix in a hesitation dribble on a drive the likes of which I can only assume Kaminsky never saw in the Big 10.

But mercy was on the side of Kaminsky and the Hornets. In the second OT when the world of basketball was firmly united in cheering Cousins towards his 60th point and the team’s sixth straight win, a referee named Zach Zarba bailed out Kaminsky by whistling Cousins for his sixth. In the league’s official review of all calls that occur in the final two minutes or OT, they deemed Zarba had made the correct call, but as any of us who watched the game can attest, it was not the correct call in the sense that Cousins was essentially penalized for being bigger and stronger than his opponent. And what a way to wrap up a night in which a man has appeared to be truly Shaqtastic – by being penalized in a way in which Shaq was oh so familiar.

Final tally was a new career-high 56 points on 30 shots, a single three, 13-16 from the line, a team-best +13, and a Kings loss.

The following night a bedraggled Kings team headed north to take on the Blazers in Portland. They were soundly thrashed, losing every quarter of the game. Our hero Boogie fell back to earth with a thud scoring 17 points while shooting 4-21 from the field. But who reserves space in their memory banks for the second games of back-to-backs? Who has time for such letdowns when we’re given 104 points over a two-game span? Cousins might not be Shaq, but in an evolving NBA where skilled back-to-the-basket big men appear to be a slowly dying breed, Cousins is without peer when it comes to dominant big man. While he may make head scratch-inducing decisions and have the occasional poor judgment on the court, enjoy him while we can and let’s not forget the time he scored 104 points in back-to-back games.

Final two-night tally: 104 points on 38-59 shooting (64%), 2-5 from three, 26-36 from the line (72%), 25 rebounds, 10 fouls, 12 turnovers, 84 minutes, 1-1 record

Conquistadors in California, alternately: Channeling Emotion into Effectiveness: A Contrast of Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins

Two of the league’s youngest, shiniest, brightest and most volatile stars are residing in the same Sunshine State and we all get the luxury of watching these mountains of agility, power and skill square off four times this season. I’m not talking about Dwight Howard (not that bright), Pau Gasol (not that young), Andrew Bogut (not that volatile) or DeAndre Jordan (just not enough). Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins are captivating for what they’ve done in two short years and maybe even more for what they haven’t done; which is reach their stratospheric potentials.

Last night, Monday night, these two giants competed; not against each other, but for my attention. Big Cuz did his thing in Sacramento and went bananas during a third quarter stretch where he seemed to galvanize himself, his team and fans. His emotion rises in pitches and can be tracked by events: A blocked shot on the defensive end leads to Cousins making a face, a scowl that takes place while the 22-year-old barrels down the court, sprinting to get to the offensive end where his excitement almost results in turnovers, but instead it’s a hustle play, a jumper that extends the Kings’ lead and it’s followed by more sprinting and obvious satisfaction. There are sequences like this throughout the game: Cousins makes a layup, gets a steal on the other end and never missing a play, he gets a dunk going back the other way. He’s uplifted, raised to the rafters by a combination of his own energy (barely harnessed) and the sounds of the crowd urging him on, lifting him higher.

Down I-5 in Los Angeles, I focused of my attention on the Cavs-Clips game, Chris Paul vs. Kyrie Irving; which somehow turned into the Dion Waiters show. Point guard and ball handling clinics aside, I kept an eye on Blake Griffin; one of the league’s most recent poster boys. His face is more recognizable than Arian Foster’s, maybe better known than Mitt Romney among the 25-and-under set. And tonight he’s just OK. He catches lobs from CP3 that have a similar impact on the crowd as Cousins’ antics. The big difference is where Cousins wears his heart on his sleeve, unable to contain even the faintest emotion; wearing the worst poker face in the NBA, Blake is cool, expectant, nonchalant. In a deadpan tone, “I ferociously dunked on that man’s face, put him on a poster, got seven million views on YouTube, so what? It’s what I do.” And the crowd reveres him for it—it’s LA, it’s Hollywood, it’s cold, emotionless, unfeeling, sunglasses at midnight—swaggalicious! But it’s not enough tonight, the 20 points, the dunks, the improved post game, the passes, the increased defensive activity; it’s not enough and he ends the game with the poorest plus/minus of any Clippers player. The stat’s not all-indicative or all-encompassing, but it does tell us that the Clips were outscored when Blake was on the court tonight. The above isn’t to say that Griffin is emotionless. Rather, his furies are selective; taken out on rims and refs. A man can’t dunk with the aggression of Griffin without having something built up, pent up, bottled up…waiting to explode.

Griffin’s an embraceable face, a marketable style, a chiseled athlete that Subway and Kia throw wads of cash at in attempts to lure him into promoting their products. He’s rugged and competitive; he’s the perfect athlete to place on a pedestal. But DeMarcus? Last season he demanded a trade and (in a roundabout way) got his coach fired. To casual fans, he’s known as much for his outbursts and tantrums as he is for his dominant play and potential. To the unknowing, he’s the enfant terrible. How much of is this fueled by anger compared to immature indiscretion is impossible to know, but it’s fair to assume both parts sources drive Cousins’ madness.

And of course these two young innocents have exchanged words and occasional elbows on the court. After a physical game last season, Cousins called Griffin an “actor” and said the NBA “babies” him. Griffin responded with some jokes and questioned Cousins’ reputation. It was a nice tit for tat that can link players together through the media while driving them apart as people and potential teammates (all-star games, Olympics).

Despite Griffin developing somewhat of a reputation as being one of the league’s golden children (especially from a marketing and advertising perspective), he’s simultaneously becoming known for his flopping and posturing. He’s prone to the extended stare after a big play, the glare after a hard foul; he can be seen as a tough guy who doesn’t back it up. If you’re a Clippers or Griffin fan, you see him getting under the skin of his opponents, helping his team win while maintaining his cool. His cool is part of his being, part of his on-court persona and skill set. Given his effort and physicality, it’s hard to make a case that his cool results in any on-court detachment. This is where the primary break with DeMarcus occurs. Where Griffin’s immaturity and petulance are merely annoying for fans and opponents, Demarcus’s antics and eruptions are distracting for him and his teammates. He’s battling the refs, battling opponents, battling coaches and worst of all, fighting himself.

At risk of delving into a wormhole of sociological speculation, I’ll only briefly touch on the drastic life differences these two young men endured growing up. Griffin was raised in a two-parent home in Oklahoma; one where he was homeschooled until eighth grade and played for his father in high school. Alternately, Cousins grew up in a single-family household, attended multiple high schools in Alabama and steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for his behavior. A fully fleshed-out essay could easily be built around the differences in their childhoods and the challenges they face today as a result, but other than this brief review, I’d rather stick to the men we’re dealing with today, not yesterday.

Literally speaking of yesterday, I watched Griffin and questioned whether or not he’d actually developed over his first couple seasons. While Cousins’ statistical arrow is pointed straight up, Griffin’s stats have been slightly, but steadily, dipping down. Looking at it from a purely statistical standpoint or even watching the games, you can see Griffin’s impact isn’t what it was when he was a rookie. Meanwhile, Cousins has become the heart, soul, tears and pulse of this Kings team. Instead of looking at this as Griffin already reaching his ceiling, it’s not as simple as that. Both players are filling a void on their respective teams. In Los Angeles, Chris Paul has revised the climate from the Blake Show to a CP3-led, guard-initiated attack. It begins and ends with Paul; an on-the-court general; one of the league’s most intense competitors who’s willing do whatever (ask Julius Hodge) it takes to win. The team (Blake included) has followed his lead. Griffin’s learned to play off of his PG, drifting towards the basket on CP’s defense-collapsing drives, hitting the offensive boards on CP misses or kick out misses, he takes advantage of slower fours by hitting what’s become an improved mid-range jumper. In Sacramento, as Tyreke Evans has either plateaued or regressed, Cousins has taken on the role of catalyst. When Paul Westphal was fired last season, it was evident there was a Westphal-Cousins conflict and new coach Keith Smart was wise to tap into the mercurial big man’s psyche and give him the confidence and latitude to succeed—which he clearly did last year: 4th overall in rebounds/game, only center to finish in the top-20 in steals/game, 3rd in TRB%, led all centers in usage rate. Cousins arrived with heavy footsteps and swinging limbs, announcing his arrival to anyone in earshot or sight.

None of this is to say one player is better than the other, but rather each player’s giving his team exactly what they need. CP3 might be the Clips’ version of Jean-Luc Picard, but Blake is the swag, the electricity, the vitality. And Cousins fulfills both of those roles in Sacramento…because that’s what he has to be for them to have any chance of success. These kids leave everything on the court every time they play. They play, they care, they’re upsettable, excitable, irritable, irrationally talented. And for all their differences (vertical vs. horizontal, NoCal vs. SoCal, one-parent vs. two-parent, stability vs. volatility), they have just as much in common, although both would probably puke if they had to admit it.

Tale of the Tape

Waiting for DeMarcus

In the midst of the late summer league circuit, I wrote a post about the passage of myths and legends; about how Youtube, camera phones and Twitter had cannibalized the “I saw Kevin Durant go for 50, no 60, wait wait it was definitely 66 points…” stories. There’s a light lament that gives way to honesty with the erosion of legend. But there’s another unknown that still lives on no matter how technologically advanced we become (unless we end up developing some kind of AI to assess a human’s capability and just play the game through simulations—don’t doubt it) and that’s unrealized potential. Injuries, drugs, alcohol, attitude … tragedy. All temptations and we’re all human so we’re all susceptible. Depending on who you are and what genes your parents passed onto you and where you grew up and when you grew up there; the likelihood of you meandering down one of the dark paths above changes accordingly. Most of us find a way to walk, stumble or crawl straight enough or just make sure our wanderings don’t get too far off the path to become trapped and scrape by for survival.

But… we all know someone or many someones who have gotten stuck and maybe you fucked up too and maybe it wasn’t your fault. Someone close to me struggles to stay straight every day and even though I know his chronology and I know what he’s been through, I’ll never know what his struggle feels like. He’s talented, intelligent, exuberant, equipped with talent to create beauty out of thin air and yet … he’s his own worst enemy.

So we’re almost 300 words in and you’re like, “My man, where’s the basketball?” It’s here, it’s relatable. It’s DeMarcus Cousins. It’s every scouting report dating back to him being a sophomore in high school questioning his consistency, commitment to conditioning, emotional maturity (by 2007, I think the high school basketball scouting industry issued a mandate that all Cousins scouting reports include a reference to emotional maturity), mentioning loafing, asking about his effort and on and on. For every negative or weakness that came attached to a Cousins scouting report, there were five more positives/strengths that usually amounted to “sky’s the limit if he can figure it out.” The question marks above leeched onto Cousins’ reputation and whatever they sucked out, they spewed into the basketball world to be inhaled by people who want to make money off Cousins and are willing to give him things in return. Some probably believe the Cousins question marks were validated this past Sunday when the Kings reported that the 21-year-old had requested a trade or they just see it as one more validation in a half-decade full of validations.

In true DeMarcus Cousins fashion, he denied having demanded a trade. And if you look back through the interviews and clippings that cover his basketball-playing career, Cousins has done a remarkably consistent job of deflecting blame and refusing to take accountability for his actions. Even small concessions have been tough to come by. After his sophomore season in 2007 he transferred from Erwin High School in Birmingham because he got into an altercation with a faculty member (Cousins is insistent it was self-defense and witness reports agree). From there, it was on to Clay-Chalkville High School, but he was deemed ineligible for some recruiting shenanigans and never played a game there. Next it was onto his final high school destination, LeFlore in Mobile. Along the way, from the suspension at Erwin to the ineligibility at Clay-Chalkville to the developing reputation for becoming easily frustrated if an opponent challenged him, Cousins and his mother, Monique, painted a picture of being the victim, referring to DeMarcus as being a “target” and “piece of meat” and insisting that his reputation for being a thug was completely out of context and unfair.

I’m not naïve enough to dispute that Cousins was a target for some people or he was treated like a piece of meat. And I can’t fault Monique for protecting her son any way she could—even if it meant three schools in three years and vehemently defending her son against portrayals inconsistent with her idea of the young man she raised. His coach at LeFlore, Otis Hughley, sided with mom and said, “On the court he may be tough, but off the court he’s scared of the dog. He’s not a wussy kid, but he’s a sweet kid. I don’t know anyone that’s met him that doesn’t like him.”

Unfortunately, there’s no guide to raising a basketball prodigy which is exactly what Cousins was. Since the internet has claimed and archived so many moments of his teenage life that should’ve remained private, we can look at his development through the lens of time and realize that Cousins’ questionable behavior—whether you call it outbursts, tantrums, passion, emotion, motor—was allowed to grow, develop and settle in as part of his personality. More than likely, this was done to protect the young man. From the few quotes out there, Cousins has mentioned that he was bullied in junior high school. His biological father wasn’t present either. He had a strong relationship with Hughley and when John Calipari coached him at Kentucky, he had this to say in June of 2010, just after Cousins was drafted by Sacramento, “I coached him like he was my son, and he needs that. In fact, he and my (13-year-old) son (Brad) would play video games and I’d say (to Cousins), ‘You guys are the same age.’ He’s one of those kids that needs to be hugged, loved. Don’t act like he’s a grown man. He’s a growing man.”

Filling in the portrait of DeMarcus as a young man, I kept making connections between the youth of Cousins and Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq’s step-father, “Sarge” (Philip Harrison) is likely the most-referenced person in his auto-biography (or maybe it just seems that way because of the repeated references to physical and mental abuse—another post, another day) and while I can’t even get close to condoning Sarge’s method, the more I read about Cousins, the more I felt he needed (and maybe still needs) someone to hold him accountable, someone who wouldn’t let him hold his head down when classmates called him a “waste of space,” someone to get in his ass when the shoulders slumped and the nostrils flared, someone who wouldn’t let him run away when the shit hit the fan—three high schools in three years, one year in college and just four games into his second NBA season when he was ready to run away again.

But he didn’t have that and nothing can be done to change the past. His time at Kentucky sounded like a positive, stable experience and even after he was drafted by the Kings, Cousins was saying he wished he would’ve stayed in school. Even in that structured environment, he was involved in a couple of on-court incidents against Louisville, Vanderbilt and rumors had him fighting fans in South Carolina. And in his first season with the Kings, a franchise that went out of its way to provide stability for Cousins by hiring his former high school coach, Otis Hughley, Cousins got in a postgame locker room fight with teammate Donte Greene. Elbows, forearms, heated exchange with teammates … these things happen in competitive environments, but what separates Cousins from the majority of pro and college athletes is that reputation, that “dark cloud” as Cousins refers to it, that he’s unable or unwilling to take any responsibility for. It’s beneficial for pro franchises to keep these incidents behind closed doors and it sounds like the Kings organization has kept a lot of DeMarcus’s issues on the hush hush. Coach Paul Westphal explained it like this: “Everything that happens on a team does not become known to the public. This is how it should be. However, when a player continually, aggressively, lets it be known that he is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team, it cannot be ignored indefinitely,” and told Cousins there would be “less protection” from the team in disclosing future issues.

The people who care about DeMarcus Cousins can see the fighting, arguments, pouting, knee-jerk denials (“I have not demanded or requested a trade.” – Bullshit.) and see beyond the punk or the brat. Just like we can all see people in our lives (friends, family, co-workers, the dude in the mirror) who are doing too little with too much talent, who struggle to buy into their own ability and create their own personal obstacle courses which they clumsily navigate. And when you see these people and especially if you find it happening to yourself, you want to reach out with the utmost urgency and shake this man or woman out of whatever funk that lies so deeply in their soul, but it’s not that easy. You talk it over with them and have the same conversations and the same solutions come up and they nod because they get it just like you do. Then the same behaviors crop back up, bad habits creep around the corner like the bad humor man delivering another sick joke. You sympathize and feel the pain and cut them a bit of slack because you love and care about this person, but at some point, maybe today, tomorrow or yesterday, you deliver your message with a little less meaning and it doesn’t mean you give up; it just means it’s on them to figure it out. For DeMarcus Cousins, there’s a world of basketball fans and media out there, sympathetic and unsympathetic (does it even matter?), watching closely, I mean up in his face, breath hot on the side of his 21-year-old stubble-covered cheek, watching and waiting. DeMarcus has already proven the ride’s going to be entertaining; regardless of the ending.

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