NBA Saturday: Livingston Steps up for Warriors

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Arguably no player in the NBA has had a career with peaks and valleys as dramatic as Shaun Livingston. Drafted fourth overall in the 2004 draft, Livingston was pegged as the NBA’s next superstar point guard. Standing 6’7 with a huge wingspan, great hands, a versatile skillset and superior court vision, Livingston was supposed to one day change the way we think about point guards.

In the 2005-06 season, Livingston started scratching the surface of his potential. However, we all know what happened on February 26, 2007, when Livingston suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in modern professional sports history. After going up for a transition layup, his knee buckled on the landing. Livingston tore his ACL, PCL, lateral meniscus, severely sprained his MCL and dislocated his patella and tibio-fibular joint.

Livingston went through a grueling rehab and eventually signed a contract with the Miami HEAT on October 3, 2008. From there, Livingston would be traded and waived multiple times, bouncing from team to team and even spending time in the D-League. Livingston finally managed to play 76 games with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013-14 and parlayed that into a three-year, $16 million contract with the Golden State Warriors.

Livingston didn’t put up huge numbers for the Warriors last season, but he was instrumental in their championship run. He picked up where he left off in Brooklyn, playing tough defense, facilitating the offense and doing all the little things to help his team win. Now, with Stephen Curry sidelined with a foot and ankle injury, Livingston has been asked to step in as the starting point guard for the Warriors over their last two playoff games.

Over those two games, Livingston is averaging 16 points, 4.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. Again, these aren’t earth-shattering numbers, nor do they come close to Curry’s usual production. However, Livingston has managed to step in and facilitate the Warriors’ offense efficiently, while providing solid defense as well.

The interesting part about Livingston starting in place of Curry is the extreme contrast in which these two guards play. Curry is a magician with the ball and a sniper coming off of screens. Opposing defenses can’t afford to give Curry a moment of daylight since he can get his shot off in the blink of an eye. This isn’t the case for Livingston, who has shot 19 percent from three-point range over the course of his career and has made only two three-pointers this season.

Livingston may have never changed the way we think about point guards, but his game is still distinct from most point guards today. Instead of launching three-pointers, Livingston uses his length and skill to score from midrange and out of the post – two parts of the floor where defenses tend to funnel opposing players since those are considered to be inefficient shots. This is an extreme shift from Curry, who takes the majority of his shots from beyond the arc and at the rim. While Livingston can’t spread the court with his shooting and can’t get teammates open looks the way Curry can, he has done a nice job of moving the ball, finding his shooters and filling in open spaces of the court to be a secondary scorer.

In Game 2, Livingston managed to score in a variety of ways, including pullup jumpers from midrange, several postups against Patrick Beverley and an alley-oop from Draymond Green in transition. He also made smart, on-point passes to his teammates, which led to several open looks. Golden State’s offense generates open looks efficiently, and Livingston did a good job of keeping things simple, being patient and finding his teammates the moment they found some separation from their defenders.

Livingston did more of the same in Game 3. He got another alley-oop from Green in transition, abused Beverley in the post and in isolation and also threw down a highlight-worthy dunk over Dwight Howard after blowing by his defender. Livingston didn’t have as many assists in Game 3, but he played solid defense and made a key play at the end of the game that almost sealed the win for the Warriors.

With just over 14 seconds left on the clock and the Warriors down by one, Livingston stole the Rockets’ inbounds pass, which led to a transition layup for Ian Clark that put the Warriors up by one with 10.6 seconds left to play. Of course, James Harden came down on the other end and won the game with a step-back jumper over Andre Iguodala, but the steal and assist from Livingston gave the Warriors a chance to steal a road playoff game without its superstar. The Warriors did not put together their best effort in Game 3 (to say the least), but Livingston played well – providing his usual steady leadership and contributions on both ends of the court.

Of course, Livingston cannot replace what Curry brings to the table. No one really can. But it’s a nice luxury to have someone as versatile and skilled as Livingston to fill in when Curry is out with an injury.

Jerry West, an adviser and Executive Board Member of the Warriors, spoke with Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle about Livingston and what he brings to Golden State.

“One of my favorite signings, to be honest with you,” West said on Tuesday. “I spent some time with Jason Kidd (then-coach of the Brooklyn Nets) that summer, and he was very candid about Shaun being one of his favorite players on the Nets. Spend some time with him and you realize what kind of a kid he is, just an incredible addition to our team.

“The thing I like about him, he understands the game, knows his role, terrific ballhandler, and that quick jumper — you’re right, that’s a shot that’s very conducive to winning and is very much missed in the NBA today. This is a guy who can go in there and not try to overpower people, but finesse them to where he can not only score, but deliver the ball to other people. And he’s a very selfless player. At times, I wish he’d be a little more aggressive offensively.”

It’s true that Livingston can be a little too passive at times, but that’s how he has always played the game. He is always looking to setup his teammates first and foremost, turning to his own offense only when he has a clear advantage. But as we have seen in these last few games, he is tough to stop when he is playing to his strengths, even for a strong defender like Beverley. While the Warriors fell short to a very flawed Houston Rockets team in Game 3, Livingston did his part in putting the team in a position to win.

Curry is expected to play in Game 4, which will move Livingston back into his reserve role. His numbers will likely go back down to his usual averages, but make no mistake about it, he will continue to be a key contributor for the Warriors in the playoffs.

He entered the league as a potential phenom, suffered what looked to be a career-ending injury, spent years bouncing from team to team and finally signed a multi-year deal and won a championship last season. Now, he is the Warriors’ safety net in case Curry continues to struggle with his injury, which is a pretty nice luxury for Golden State. Livingston may not be an elite player, but he’s really, really good and one of the easiest players to route for in the entire league.

“Thank God we have him,” West said. “We’d be in trouble without him.”