That DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James led the Kings and Cavaliers, respectively, in one major offensive category Friday night was no surprise. The twist was which one.
Each team’s leading scorer this season was its most efficient facilitator on Friday, as James (15) and Cousins (11) set season highs in assists. James’ total was less unusual, as he is Cleveland’s assists leader on the season, ranking fifth in the league.
Cousins, though, entered Friday averaging less than four assists, and his 11 marked just the fifth double-digit game of his career. It was also one positive that coach Dave Joerger found in the Kings’ 120-108 loss, and representative of a trend he’d like to see continue, this evening against the Oklahoma City Thunder and beyond.
It is no secret that the offense often runs through Cousins. The Kings’ job when opposing teams send extra defenders at Cousins is to exploit the openings left on the floor to create good shots.
“When guys are playmakers like (James and Cousins), they also have five or six ‘hockey assists,’ where somebody (on defense) has to rotate and then you get an extra pass,” said Joerger. “Those are the shots you practice all the time.
“I think we struggle only when we stand and watch (Cousins) play. If we cut off of him, whether he’s at the elbow or the post, he’s a willing passer, and it makes complementary players increase their scoring.”
Cousins assisted on three baskets by both Darren Collison and Rudy Gay, two by both Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes and one from Ty Lawson. Five of Cousins’ assists led to 3-pointers.
Notably, eight of Collison’s 13 points came on baskets assisted by Cousins compared with two of Lawson’s (17 points), which Cousins explained reflects how the offense can differ when either point guard is in the game.
“When Ty’s in the game, it takes a lot of pressure off me – I can kind of get back into scoring mode when we need it,” Cousins said. “When I’m with DC, I’m more of the playmaker and I need DC to score. It’s just a different look for this team.”
When the offense runs through Cousins in the post, he often has to decide quickly whether to pass or drive and create a shot for himself. The Cavaliers, a veteran team, complicated that Friday by varying the number of defenders they sent at Cousins and when they converged.
Along with his 11 assists, Cousins had six turnovers and said the different looks Cleveland presented “played to their advantage because I had to make a lot of decisions quickly.” Still, Cousins said sharing the ball is a priority, especially as the Kings become more familiar with Joerger’s offense.
“I’m just trying to lead by example,” he said. “We preach ball movement. And earlier in the season, I think I was a little too aggressive with the ball and trying to get to the basket or whatever the case may be. Now I’m trying to pick my spots and make sure guys are involved and they feel a part of the game.”
Different teams guard Cousins in different ways. So guard Garrett Temple, who has started alongside Cousins for the past three games, said the Kings can help maximize his opportunities as a facilitator by knowing where double teams may come from so they can be in the right area to receive a pass.
“It’s like a blind pass, a couple of the passes he made to Darren in the corner tonight or to Rudy cross-court,” Temple said. “We’ve got to be at those spots.”
While Gay and Collison have played alongside Cousins for multiple seasons, players such as Temple, Lawson, Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver have done so for fewer than 40 games. Joerger, meanwhile, continues to tinker with his lineup and rotations and acknowledged that compounds things for a team trying to learn each other and a new system.
“I’d love to tell you it’s going to take three years, buy myself some time,” Joerger joked Friday night. “But you hope it continues to get better.”
Cousins said he thought the Kings “ran our stuff probably the best we have all season” against the Cavaliers. For Joerger, it also carried a whiff of potential.
“Like I said, if we stand around and watch (Cousins) play, then people move up to him and put a bunch of bodies on him, whether he’s at the top of the key and driving or at the elbow driving or in the low post,” Joerger said.
“If we can move around him and yet still not get in his way and make ourselves effective cutters, it’ll make him even more effective.”