He sat with his feet in an ice bucket, a patch over his left eye after eight stitches caused by a blow from teammate Ty Lawson and beat up after 34 minutes in the trenches. For Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, it was Groundhog Day.
He’s been here hundreds of times, sulking, reflecting, and aching after another excruciating Kings loss. It hardly mattered that he put up 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. Again, a monstrous night ended in defeat, 97-92 to the Celtics, who forced Cousins into one of his roughest nights of the season.
In the final seconds, with the Kings needing a 3-pointer, Cousins attempted to dupe a foul from the aggressive Al Horford by raising up and hoping the contact would draw a foul. Instead, the contact caused a clean strip and the Celtics prevailed.
After being struck near the eye by Lawson in a scramble for the ball, Cousins told the Celtics team physician to glue together the cut so he could return with 5:17 left. Having stitches put in would likely have caused him to miss the rest of the game.
So when Cousins returned to the locker room to address the media, he was still in full uniform, having just received his stitches, likely reflecting on how his quest to resurrect a moribund franchise is stuck in neutral. The Kings are 171-324 in Cousins’s six-plus years and Dave Joerger is his sixth coach.
The improvement is apparent. The Kings are actually defending under Joerger. Entering Friday, they were 18th in points allowed, and they held the Celtics to 36.3 percent shooting in the final three periods. Cousins, meanwhile, is in better shape after a summer’s work with Team USA and has expanded his shooting range.
Although Cousins still tends to pout after bad calls or non-calls, doesn’t always engage himself defensively, and will sometimes force the offensive issue — such as in that pivotal play against Horford — he has become an elite player. The Celtics may be interested in him more seriously as midseason approaches and the question lingers as to how long he can withstand the battering without winning.
On Friday, the Kings fell behind, 29-16, before rallying to take the lead on several occasions. The final one was 76-74 with 8:34 left before a 10-0 Celtics run was sparked by Isaiah Thomas.
“It’s almost like we gotta get hit first for us to react,” Cousins said. “That’s kind of been the slogan the whole year. It’s not good for us. We’re in the situation where we have to come out and be the aggressive team every night. We’re not that team that can start playing and then just turn it on.
“If we don’t figure this thing out, we’re going to continue to have these types of games. It’s another losing season. Like I’ve been saying all season, it’s on us. If we want to change this thing around, it’s on us. We have to hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility for our effort coming out early in games.”
The Kings have had these issues for years. The question is whether Cousins is the cause of the issue, guilty by association, or overwhelmed by a losing culture of a franchise that hasn’t been significant in 15 years.
Some blame him for the losing because of his attitude and surliness, but at age 26, after his Olympic experience surrounded by winners and fiercely competitive spirits, he appears to be trying to change this culture.
“We have to look ourselves in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable,” he said. “We know we’re not giving it 100 percent at the beginning of games. Myself, everybody else has to do it. It’s on us.”
Sitting a few feet from Cousins in the locker room was teammate Matt Barnes, in his second stint with the Kings after an 11-year absence.
“We’re right there, we have the talent, it’s just changing the culture,” Barnes said. “This team has been in a rut for a handful of years so it’s just breaking little habits, but growth is uncomfortable and I think that’s what we’re going through right now.
“Cousins puts up godly numbers. We gotta start turning his big nights into wins for us, so he gets more recognition. He should definitely be an MVP candidate, but that doesn’t happen when you’re on a losing team. So as a whole, we need to do a better job of moving the ball and playing better defense. He’s always going to get his numbers.”
Cousins stopped short of complaining about the officiating, only saying that Horford was “hands-on all night.” Cousins has been known to gripe about a lack of calls and, therefore, respect. What would happen if he played games that carried more significance? If he played in a bigger market surrounded by more talented teammates, ones who were more passionate about winning?
It’s still hard to figure whether Cousins is the problem or the solution in Sacramento — or a solution somewhere else, such as Boston.
Cousins likely won’t come with a guarantee of success, so it going to take a general manager with guts enough to take a major chance.
“For me, it’s tough to watch because I played with a lot of superstars and he doesn’t get the calls that other superstars I played with get,” Barnes said. “With Blake [Griffin] and Chris [Paul] and Kobe [Bryant]. He’s that caliber of player. Superstars get calls, but our superstar doesn’t get calls.”
So you can perhaps see why Cousins sulks most of the time. The situation isn’t changing, perhaps the environment should.