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Houston Rockets’ DeMarcus Cousins flashes past dominance with cathartic 28-point, 17-rebound night

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DeMarcus Cousins readily admits that he didn’t know whether he’d ever have another dominant performance.

In fact, Cousins acknowledged after his 28-point, 17-rebound, 5-assist outing in the Houston Rockets’ 133-108 win Saturday night over the Dallas Mavericks that there were times that doubts crept into his mind whether he’d ever even get back on an NBA court, period.

That’s how cathartic this game was for Cousins, a four-time All-Star playing for the veterans minimum this season, after he endured a ruptured Achilles tendon, a torn quadriceps and a torn ACL while bouncing around to four franchises over the past four years.

“It’s just proof that the work is working,” Cousins said. “The work, the time, the effort, those days I didn’t want to get up and do it, the days I thought I was wasting, my time, the dog days I thought it was over for me — all of those thoughts at some point flashed in my mind. I would be lying if I didn’t have those moments, but just continue to believe in myself.”

Cousins, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury suffered after he signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, had struggled to find a rhythm at the start of his stint with the Rockets. He was sidelined the first week of the season due to contact tracing as part of the league’s health and safety protocols, and Cousins shot only 26.3% from the floor in his first 11 games, including a 2-of-16 outing in Friday’s win over the Chicago Bulls.

But Cousins busted out of his shooting slump by going 9-of-15 against the Mavs, using his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame to bully his way to the basket in vintage “Boogie” form on several occasions and making four of eight 3-point attempts.

“It’s a confidence boost, for sure,” Cousins said. “It lets you know that it’s able to be done. It lets you know that the work you’re putting in is starting to come around. Stay the course. It’s a long season. It’s definitely going to be a process for me. I’m sure there’s going to be more bad days ahead. Just stay the course, stay level-headed and never stop working. That’s really all I can do.”

It was Cousins’ highest-scoring game since a 44-point, 23-rebound, 10-assist triple-double for the New Orleans Pelicans in a Jan. 22, 2018, win, when he was a superstar expected to command a maximum contract as a free agent that summer.

Four days later, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the final seconds of a win over the Rockets.

Cousins played a total of only 38 games, including the playoffs, over the next two seasons, signing one-year deals with the Golden State Warriors and Lakers. He arrived in Houston with hopes of resuscitating his career and has embraced a backup role, emerging as a leader and serving as a mentor to blossoming star center Christian Wood and other young Rockets during a turbulent start to the season as franchise cornerstone James Harden forced a trade.

But this performance, coming with Wood sidelined by a sprained ankle, represented the first time that Cousins played a starring role in a Rockets win.

“I told him it’s a process,” said Rockets point guard John Wall, Cousins’ college teammate and close friend who had eight assists in his return after a five-game absence due to a sore knee. “I mean, I know it’s difficult from being that franchise guy and always being the guy that was dominant and having the game the way you want it to be, and now he has to accept the role of coming off the bench. That’s a little bit difficult for a lot of people that’s always been that guy and then probably wanting to play more minutes but not getting as many minutes.

“You never know when your time is going to be called. Stay patient and be ready. I feel like he got the same type of looks he got last night in Detroit. He just didn’t make them. I don’t know what he did on the flight or all day today to come back and be able to play on a back-to-back and play the game that he did. It was big for us.”

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Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart hopes to return for start of second half of season, sources say

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Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart is likely to continue rehabilitating his left calf strain through the March 5-10 All-Star break with hopes of returning to the lineup for the start of the season’s second half, sources told ESPN.

Smart, working to fully recover from the injury, which occurred on Jan. 30, resumed traveling with the Celtics on Sunday in New Orleans and participated in light on-court activities, coach Brad Stevens said before his team’s game against the Pelicans.

The Celtics are 5-6 without Smart in the lineup since his injury, and he would presumably miss seven more games through the end of the first half of the season on March 4.

Smart was having his best NBA season, including career highs in points (13.1), assists (6.1) and steals (1.8). He also is leading the Celtics in defensive categories that include deflections and loose ball recoveries.

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Detroit Pistons G Delon Wright to miss 2 weeks with groin strain

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Detroit Pistons guard Delon Wright is expected to miss two weeks after suffering a Grade 2 strain of his right groin, the team announced Sunday.

Wright was injured in a 109-95 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 19. He led the Pistons in scoring that night with 16 points. Wright is averaging 10.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and leads the team in both assists (4.9) and steals (1.4) per game.

Detroit acquired the 28-year-old in an offseason trade with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Pistons will continue their five-game road trip on Sunday with the first of two consecutive games against Orlando Magic before wrapping up the swing at New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

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Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers have hit the first true challenge of their title defense, with Saturday’s 96-94 loss to the Miami Heat marking the third defeat in their past four games since Anthony Davis aggravated his Achilles tendinosis and suffered a calf strain in his right leg.

A question for these Lakers has emerged: Does LeBron James need to do more to help his teammates or do his teammates need to do more to help James?

“I feel like the last couple games that’s been happening, putting a lot on Bron,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “We already know what we’re going to get out of him. So all the rest of us, we’ve got to continue to just play hard and just play basketball and not worry about anything else.”

James scored 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting against the Heat (including just 1-for-8 from 3-point range), accounting for his worst shooting percentage of the season. He also coughed up a team-high five turnovers.

James, after stealing an inbounds pass intended for Jimmy Butler with 5.4 seconds left in the contest and setting up Alex Caruso for a potential game-tying shot that missed, insisted his teammates don’t need to pick up any more slack while Davis and starting point guard Dennis Schroder are sidelined.

“They are doing their part,” James said. “They’re doing their part and more.”

No, James said it’s on him to lead L.A. out of the rough patch it’s in, as he has done for the majority of his 18-year career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Heat and now the Lakers. Saturday’s loss dropped the defending champions to No. 3 in the Western Conference standings.

“I think that’s what it all boils down to, and right now is another challenge for me, to be able to adjust,” James said. “Not having AD for a long period of time is something that we haven’t had over the last year and a half, and now it’s time for me to adjust again and see ways I can be even more effective to help this team win ballgames. Because that is the sport that we’re in.

“We’re in the winning business, and I’ve always been a winner. So, it’s time to click into that.”

James wasn’t the only one to struggle shooting the ball against Miami. The Lakers went 1-for-13 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter and didn’t fare all that much better for the game, hitting 13-of-45 attempts (28.9%) from the outside.

“We try to help him out as much as possible, and we want to do it as perfect as possible, as we can,” said Caldwell-Pope, one of only three Lakers to make more shots than he missed against the Heat. “We try to help him out, we try not to make too much mistakes when we’re on the floor with him or even running a play with him, just to give him some help. We do ask Bron for a lot; he gives us a lot each and every game.

“It’s up to us as far as like role players and ‘next man up’ mentality, we’ve got to be ready and locked in.”

Caruso, who is 10 years younger than James, said being mindful of not burning out James in February with a championship run planned for the spring and early summer is a “conscious thing” for his teammates.

“I mean, LeBron is the best player on our team, and night in and night out you can see attention he gets because he is,” Caruso said. “With the guys that we got out, teams are going to load up against him. He has a great basketball mind, and he’s going to do his part to get guys open to make great plays.”

For James, who rallied in support of his team by saying, “Every time we’re on the floor, we’re all trying to protect each other and bring each other up out on the floor every single night,” there was one minor critique of a teammate he did share, however.

Down by two points with 1.4 seconds left in the game, he said he wished Caruso would have taken a couple of steps back to launch a 3 and go for the win.

“I think the only bad thing about it is that he shot a long 2,” James said of Caruso’s 22-foot shot that hit the front rim at the buzzer. “I wish he would have shot a 3 and, make or miss, I’ll live with that.”

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