Back during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, there was a moment in the third quarter — before the brain freeze heard round the world — that was quintessential Golden State Warriors basketball. With the Dubs in the midst of another third quarter thrashing (+141 in the third during the playoffs), LeBron James tried to respond to a Klay Thompson three-pointer with a triple of his own.
After getting a switch, though, James missed his shot from the top of the key over Kevon Looney. And before you could blink, Golden State was off to the races; Kevin Durant scooped the rebound, the crowd at Oracle started to hyperventilate — they know when their team is about to light everything on fire and jump out the window.
Durant hit Shaun Livingston with an outlet pass; all that stood in the 6-foot-7 slinky’s way was Cleveland’s crummy transition defense. Livingston could’ve tried to finish over or around LeBron — who of course was the only Cav back to stop the ball. Instead, however, Livingston made the play that you knew he’d make — a simple play that he’s made time and time again during this magical four-year run in Oakland.
On the surface, there’s nothing too special about this read: it’s just a garden-variety drop-off pass for a dunk. But it’s says everything you need to know about Shaun Livingston — the embodiment of Golden State’s culture. “Look for the open man, share the ball, turn a good shot into a great shot.”
When the dust settles on this run of play in the Bay Area — which may be a while from now — a dynasty will be completed. The conversation for greatest team, or run, in basketball history may start and stop with Golden State.
The bards will sing ballads of Steph Curry’s paradigm-shifting shot making and effortless range; Draymond Green will go down as the most hated, but also the team’s defensive lynchpin, and a critical passing hub on offense. Klay Thompson: the steady one — omnipresent with All-NBA-level defense and catch-and-shoot efficiency.
Durant will be remembered as the 7-foot scoring robot that made them invincible, and at least temporarily, broke basketball. And Andre Iguodala: a two-way menace that helped unlock the greatest small-ball lineup in hoops history.
Then there’s Livingston, who has been there for the entirety of the championship run, too, never blinking, always buying into the system.
There’s no questioning that Golden State’s championship success has mostly to do with its four All-NBA players: Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green. No duh. However, I truly don’t believe there’s a player on any of these rosters the last four years that’s better represented what Steve Kerr sought out to create than Shaun Livingston.
Pass, cut, keep moving, keeping looking — an open three or dunk is within reach. The defense is gonna break; there’s going to be a miscommunication; when that happens, bam. The ball has energy; the more you move it, the more it builds.
Livingston is such a smart player, always willing to take what the defense gives him. Defenders know that he doesn’t want to shoot from deep, so they sag off when he pounds the ball up top. This, however, opens passing lanes for Livingston, who doesn’t miss open cutters. (I’m partial to when he whips behind-the-back dimes with precision on the break, but this is pretty nasty, too.)
It’s no surprise that in the regular season this year — despite playing under 16 minutes per game, Livingston averaged 26 passes per game.
Hyper-Efficiency at the Rim
In the modern NBA, Livingston is a bit of an anomaly — and it’s because he knows exactly what he’s about. Every year, more and more three-pointers get hurled towards the rim (or at least in its general vicinity, if it’s Michael Carter-Williams in the act of shooting). Livingston, however, sticks to his game: baby jumpers and basket cuts.
For his career, Livingston — a guard — has attempted just 71 three-pointers. In these playoffs, alone, Curry has attempted 79 pull-up threes. This season, only two NBA players 6-foot-7 or shorter played at least 800 minutes and attempted fewer than 10 three-pointers: Livingston and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, predictably.
And yet, he’s the perfect compliment to Golden State’s gunners; when he and Curry play together, the Warriors are pure nitrous: over 1.2 points per possession over the last three seasons. It’s proof that even a team with three of the greatest shooters in the history of basketball still needs players that know how to play and fill in the gaps — cut, screen pass, and dive to the rim.
Dude is automatic from the mid-post — 46.6 FG% from 8-16 feet this season, and total boss at the rim. It’s more than just a cool novelty that when Golden State brings its backup point guard in they can run set plays to get him an alley-oop, although that’s pretty sweet, too.
The wiry point guard shot 68 percent in the restricted area this season; in 2016-17, the number hovered closer to 78 percent, which is ridiculous. Of course, it helps getting to play with the greatest gravity-bending guard in NBA history: Curry. (Over the last two seasons, Livingston has shot 56 percent with Curry on the floor, 51.3 percent with him off.)
Have a moment, SL
In the playoffs this year, Shaun Livingston is 31-of-36 inside the restricted area — over 86 percent. That’s climbed even higher in the finals, though. Livingston is 13-of-14 from the field (92.9 FG%), with the one miss coming on a Rodney Hood block in Game3, and 9-of-9 inside eight feet.
Livingston has also handed out six assists to just one turnover in the Finals, and Golden State is +14 in 51 minutes with him on the floor. In those minutes, the Warriors have a net rating of 20.2 points per 100 possessions — not too shabby.
Hear me out: The Sag Harbor 5?
One of the reasons Golden State is in this position — one win away from its third NBA title in four years — is because of the utility of another special lineup.
We all know about the Death Lineup, or the Hamptons Five, or whatever you want to call the group of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Iguodala and Green. It’s been the most unstoppable thing in basketball for a while now.
In the Western Conference Finals, which served as a de facto world championship series, Iggy was on the shelf with a knee injury — as he was to start the series against Cleveland, too. No fear: Shaun Livingston is in the house.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe likes to refer to this as the Coma Lineup — when Livingston plays with the four All-NBA superstars, instead of Iguodala. It’s a great name; however, we need these dudes to vacation in Sag Harbor or something, so we can arrive at some aristocratic beach-themed moniker for them, too.
That group has been a killer for Golden State in the past, and despite playing just 18 possessions together during the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass, it was a lifesaver against a swarming Houston team.
If not for the untimely injury to Chris Paul, and this lineups’ productivity — 119 points per 100 possessions in 19 minutes — we may very well have a different Finals champ this year. Basketball is weird and cruel like that.
Then in Game 1 of the Finals, after J.R. went haywire, this is the lineup Golden State turned to in overtime; it crushed Cleveland, promptly: 2.2 points per possession, 5-of-6 FGA (two corner threes for Klay, two paint finishes for Livingston)
This is a money play for Golden State: With KD and Thompson spaced to one side, Livingston acts like he will set a wide pindown for Curry — only to slip it for an easy slam.
Along Tobacco Road, Juxtaposed with J.R.
Back in 2004, Shaun Livingston was rated as the No. 2 player in his high school class — behind only Dwight Howard. Less than three weeks before Duke launched the 2003-04 season, Livingston — then a senior in high school — committed to the Blue Devils.
Livingston, who of course eventually opted to enter the draft, joined a class that also included Demarcus Nelson and David McClure. Both of those guys are still deeply embedded in basketball; however, they’re far away from playing meaningful minutes against LeBron in the Finals. McClure is a player development coach with the Indiana Pacers; Nelson is in France, still getting buckets. Cool, but not quite the same.
Also in the 2004 high school class with Livingston was the aforementioned J.R. Smith, who somewhat in jest, remains a bit of a Tobacco Road legend. The “what if…” scenarios play out over and over again — what happens with that 2005 team if J.R. goes to UNC, not the NBA? Does North Carolina go 40-0? Do he and Rashad McCants team up to drive Roy Williams into early-retirement? Everything is on the table.
It’s interesting, though, to see how that differs with the Livingston hypothetical in Durham, which just doesn’t have nearly the same buzz.
The Second Chapter
Truly, I suppose it’s not as compelling as the other, bigger hypothetical with Livingston, though: What becomes of his career if not for the horrific knee injury in 2007 that nearly cost him his leg? All-Star games, Nike endorsements, video game covers, Team USA Basketball invites with Coach K. The works.
It would’ve all been in line for a guy that could’ve played like a souped-up/bigger Rajon Rondo, or something along those lines. The opportunity cost for Livingston is easily in the tens of millions — and that’s probably a safe estimate.
That destiny came and passed; instead, he’s been able to pen an entirely different and inspiring conclusion to his career. Livingston battled through the injury, recovered, still made plenty of bread, traveled the league up and down as a journeyman, and found a home in the Bay.
This may need be the path Shaun Livingston would’ve chosen a decade ago. But in the end, he will be remembered for exactly what he is: a Warrior.