April was a good news/bad news month for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Over the first three weeks, the team went 11-2, which allowed them to keep pace with the equally hot Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns and put some daylight between them and the teams pounding on their third-place doorstep. But just when it looked like the Clippers were ready to overtake the Suns for second place, possibly even make a run at the top seed, they dropped back-to-back games to finish out the month and started May with a crucial loss to the Denver Nuggets. L.A. began the month in third place, and now they sit in fourth.
But from an individual standpoint, April (and the beginning of May) was all good news for veteran big man DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins.
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Waived by the Houston Rockets on February 23, Cousins signed a 10-day contract with the Clippers on April 5. Widely lauded, the move was seen as a sort of low-risk experiment for the Clippers who have been in need of more depth in the paint given the protracted absence of injured starting center Serge Ibaka. If Cousins could check his notorious attitude at the door and bring even a semblance of the skills that once made him a perennial All-Star, the Clippers would view the experiment as a win.
Though Cousins didn’t play much in those first 10 days, he clearly did enough to impress, inking a second 10-day contract on April 16 before eventually signing with the team for the remainder of the season on April 26.
And now, as the regular season winds to a close and the postseason sings its alluring siren song, the Cousins experiment is making the Clippers look good — very good.
‘Just Get Him on the Floor’
Over his last five games, despite averaging a mere 16.4 minutes, Cousins has recorded 12.0 points on 54.8% shooting and 7.6 rebounds. He posted his first double-double (11 points and 11 assists) in the Clippers’ loss to New Orleans on April 26, the day he signed with the team for the long haul, and explained to reporters after the game how head coach Ty Lue sees his role as he acclimatizes to a new team and tries to learn a playbook that is “the size of a dictionary.”
“Using my strengths,” said Cousins. “[Lue] knows I’m a willing passer and I’ve been getting double teamed since I’ve been back, which I don’t really understand. Just playing the game the right way, making the right read, trying to make the right play every possession, and trying to help lead that second unit while the starters are resting. I’m still getting accustomed to everything, still growing into my role. Hopefully, by the time the playoffs start, I can perfect that.”
Asked what he meant about not understanding the double-team, Cousins, whose stature around the league is nowhere near what it once was following three major leg injuries, was light-heartedly blunt.
“I’m the third-string big, on a 10-day, getting double-teamed,” Cousins chuckled. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before. It’s pretty funny to me.” Funny yes, but apparently not unwarranted.
On Saturday against Denver, as Paul George struggled to find his shot and Kawhi Leonard eased back from a foot injury, Cousins helped keep the Clippers close, scoring 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 2-for-3 from behind the arc. (Boogie is shooting 42.9% from three since joining the team.) Afterward, coach Lue, who opted to play Cousins all but eight seconds of the fourth quarter despite admitting that he is still learning the playbook, perhaps best summed up why the Clippers took a chance on him in the first place.
“[Cousins] is still just trying to learn the defense and offense, but he’s just a player,” said Lue. “Forget all the plays and everything, just get him on the floor. He makes things happen.”
A Changed Man: Big Brother and OG
Cousins is particularly trying to make things happen for 24-year-old Ivica Zubac, who has ably manned the starting center position since Ibaka went out in mid-March. Following the Pelicans game, Cousins spoke glowingly of Zubac’s potential and the role he hopes to play in the fourth-year player’s development.
“I love Zu,” Cousins said. “Incredible young player. He’s full of potential, but I just want to be that big brother for him, that OG for him, and continue to drop knowledge on him daily, nightly. I just want to make his job easier for him with the knowledge I already have.”
And the mentorship seems to be already working. In the 14 games since Cousins’ arrival, Zubac has averaged 11.0 points on 66.0% shooting, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists — all well-above his season average (except for rebounding, which is essentially the same: 7.2 vs 7.3).
“He’s a willing listener, he’s always trying to learn, he’s always trying to get better every day,” continued Cousins about Zubac. “You have a young player like that it’s easy to drop knowledge and communicate on the daily. He’s done a great job of being able to receive the information and translate it to the game.”
To the Boogie haters around the league, those who remember the seven troubled years he spent with the Sacramento Kings, Cousins’ willingness to help a young player may seem foreign, but there’s no doubting that Cousins’ has grown up considerably since those days. Once the technical foul king of the NBA, he no longer berates officials to their breaking point, and he seems especially willing to play whatever role is necessary to win games, even if that means not being the centerpiece.
Natural maturity is an obvious explanation, as is his diminished stock since the injuries, but to hear Cousins talk, his turnaround could also have something to do with the culture of the Clippers’ organization.
“It’s a joy to come to work every day,” gushed Cousins. “Super chill environment, everybody comes in and works their tails off. Always a good mood in the locker room. It’s crazy. It’s to the point that every single person in our building gets it. You can go hold a conversation with the team chef, the team masseuses. Whatever the case may be, everybody gets along, and that’s just an incredible thing. For it to be such a long season, and the spirit and the energy in the building to be like that on a consistent basis, it’s a rare thing. This culture is one of a kind. Definitely one of the top organizations I’ve ever been a part of.”
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