In a league that’s dominated by superstars, a man who was once excepted to be one emerged from the pack in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Shaun Livingston had expectations through the roof when he entered the league in 2004. Skinny with an afro that would make Ben Wallace proud, the 6’7 point guard was considered one of the elite players in the country and one that would eventually be an All-Star. A heartbreaking injury that threatened Livingston’s ability to walk, let alone play again in the league crushed all the potential that was within the then 21-year-old. He had his moment on multiple occasions this postseason, but no moment was bigger than his performance on Thursday.
Livingston had big shoes to fill earlier this postseason with the absence of back-to-back Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry going through a series of injuries. Livingston had a strong start, but struggled later in the postseason. The heavy minutes and lengthy season wore down the 30-year-old veteran. Oklahoma City also had a defensive scheme that gave Livingston fits on offense and he looked a step slow on the defensive end of the ball. After a difficult 7 game series against the Thunder, Livingston looked like he didn’t miss a beat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
He scored 20 points off the bench on 8 for 10 shooting. Livingston joined elite company as only Tony Parker, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the other players to score 20 points in a game with no turnovers in the NBA Finals over the past 30 years. A comfortable matchup, Livingston is now shooting 18-21 against the Cavaliers in three contests this season. Steve Kerr looks to exploit that matchup against a questionable Cleveland defense.
“I think Coach has a great feel for the game. He has just a great feel just for the energy and the temperature of the team, how a guy…whether he has it going, who has it going,” Livingston said.” Then he obviously plays the matchups as well. ”
Livingston outscored the Cavaliers’ bench on his own. He didn’t go out of his way to do anything different on the big stage, either. Some players try too hard, others falter under the pressure. As smooth as butter, Livingston’s mid-range jumper and post moves gave Cleveland fits all night long. He even chipped in 4 rebounds and 3 assists in his 20 minute stint off the bench. Going through what he did earlier in his career might be a reason why he didn’t let the rough previous games get to his head.
“Shaun’s a guy who’s battled through much more than stepping up in a game,” said Draymond Green. “When you go through so much in life and in his career, it makes stepping up in a game easy.”
After averaging 13.2 points per game against Houston, he had just 9 and 3.2 against Portland and Oklahoma City respectively. He scored only four points in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals and only had a good game in the closeout one where he scored 10. Opposing point guards hate guarding the lanky backup guard, and his teammate isn’t necessarily a fan of it either.
“Sometimes there’s really nothing you can do about it. You try to just contest his shot, but sometimes he won’t even see you,” Stephen Curry said. “And I’ll play the best defense of my life, and he’ll knock down a shot, and you’ve just got to live with the chatter. So it’s not fun.”
Livingston earned high praise from the opposition, including a player many consider one of the all-time greats.
“Obviously the game ball goes to Shaun Livingston. Came in, gave them a huge spark,” LeBron James said.
The spark won’t be there forever. Curry and Thompson won’t shoot this bad again as they had a rare off night. However, Livingston stepped up exactly how Golden State needed. They could not afford to lose another Game 1, especially at home and try to figure out a way to make a miraculous comeback like they did against the Thunder.
With the flashiness of Curry, James, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson, it’ll be easy to forget about key reserves such as Livingston. He’s no longer the hottest name out and the casual NBA fan probably won’t know who he is. He’s okay with the low profile now, though. He’s on the verge of being an NBA Champion for a consecutive year and is the best backup point guard in the league.