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LA Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins (15) shoots in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

When Portland sent a second defender to double-team DeMarcus Cousins in the post last week, and New Orleans did the same Monday, the Clippers center had one reaction: Why?

“I’m the third-string big, on a 10-day, getting double-teamed,” Cousins said, stifling laughter. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before. It’s pretty funny to me.”

In one comment, Cousins underscored why the Clippers decided to sign him through the rest of the season after his second 10-day contract expired.

The 30-year-old, once-dominant center not only still knows his surroundings on the court, but he also has proved self-aware about his standing within the NBA since injuries to his quadriceps, Achilles’ tendon and knee threw his career trajectory off course.

Now the 14th man on a roster for which rotation minutes in the playoffs could either be sparing or unavailable, depending on the Clippers’ health, Cousins said it is just “a joy to come to work every day” for a contender.

“This team has so much potential, man,” Cousins said. “Extremely excited to be a part of this organization, here to play my part, here to help push this team to bigger heights and, you know, just be that spark off the bench.”

Under no pretenses that his role for the time being is anything more than insurance to offset the absence of injured center Serge Ibaka, Cousins has been a fixture in practice games against the team’s reserves, the type of competition in which up-and-comers trying to make it in the league usually get reps, not a four-time All-Star. Yet second-year forward Amir Coffey has described long conversations with Cousins about passing and reading defenses.

While Ibaka only recently has begun playing in practice again in his recovery from a back injury, as coach Tyronn Lue said, the Clippers have received a boost of size off the bench, with Cousins averaging 12.9 minutes, 7.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 47% shooting from the field in nine games. He made 37% of his shots during 25 games with the Houston Rockets to start this season.

Cousins, meanwhile, gets a chance to make a strong case to stick in the NBA next season too.

“The more comfortable he gets,” said Clippers star Paul George, Cousins’ teammate on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in 2016, “the more he’ll find his way and he’ll continue to get back to the All-Star DeMarcus level.”

The biggest hindrance for Cousins to reaching whatever level is next is his knowledge of a playbook he described as “the size of a dictionary.” The Clippers acknowledge they cannot run much of their offense when he is on the floor. It’s one reason why the Clippers have averaged 99 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor and 123 when he is off.

Yet Cousins still has ways to influence the game, and one of them is sensing a second defender’s blitz and passing to an open teammate. Of his 11 assists as a Clipper, four have come after a second defender ran his way. Cousins joked he doesn’t understand why teams still do it.

Lue, who had become friendly with Cousins in recent seasons through offseason encounters in Las Vegas, said personal experience led him to see beyond the veteran’s brooding reputation.

“Before you have a chance to know Cuz, you think that because he’s always scowling, always mad on the court, whatever, that he’s not a good guy,” Lue said. “But he’s a great teammate.”

The Clippers, Lue said, have seen that side of Cousins so far.

“Still growing into my role,” Cousins said. “Hopefully by the time playoffs start, I can perfect that.”

UP NEXT

AT PHOENIX

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal, ESPN; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: One week after the Clippers said they would reevaluate the sore right foot of Kawhi Leonard, the star forward is listed as doubtful to play against the Suns. Phoenix (43-18) is in second place in the Western Conference standings, just one game ahead of the Clippers (43-20). Paul George was not listed on the Clippers’ injury report after hurting his ankle Monday in a loss at New Orleans. Nicolas Batum (shoulder strain) and Amir Coffey (tailbone bruise) are questionable to play.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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