In a well-oiled basketball machine with many cogs, Shaun Livingston currently stands out.
And that’s relatively new territory for the 12-year veteran.
On a team featuring the NBA’s Most Valuable Player at point guard, it’s understandably easy for the backup to get overlooked. On the Golden State Warriors roster, that MVP is Stephen Curry, who has turned the league upside down and submitted two straight seasons of unparalleled play. Aided by fellow stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Curry led the Warriors to a league-record 73 wins this season. The team is favored to win a second-straight championship.
The New Importance of Shaun Livingston
But before his brilliance, Curry had to overcome ankle issues that slowed some of his early development as a pro. At his right ankle’s worst, he suffered five sprains over a 26-game span during the 2011-2012 season and had a pair of surgeries. Since 2013, the weakness became a strength with different training, and he was able to play as many as 80 games a year ago while only missing time for soreness or general rest.
There was still room for a scare or two this season, though.
Curry missed a pair of games in December, then turned the ankle again during a win at Oklahoma City in late February and missed another. Unfazed, the Warriors set the regular season wins record and marched into the playoffs to face the reeling Houston Rockets. Then came Scare No. 2, the biggest yet. Curry hurt the ankle during Saturday’s Game 1 victory over the Rockets, missing most of the second half. He then missed Monday’s Game 2, another Warriors victory, and received an MRI Tuesday that showed “nothing of concern”. He is currently listed as questionable for Game 3.
Still, until he steps onto the court and plays like his prolific brand of basketball, concern will remain. Luckily, Livingston, himself no stranger to difficult injury, has been there to pick up the slack at every ankle turn.
The 30-year-old journeyman, whom the Los Angeles Clippers drafted directly out of high school with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, has made just four starts this season, including Monday’s 116-105 win over Houston. But he’s been effective each time, though his game doesn’t at all resemble that of his superstar teammate.
The Warriors are 3-1 in games Livingston has started, and he has averaged 10.8 points and five assists in those games, while shooting no worse than 33 percent from the field in anywhere from 20-34 minutes of action. Monday night, he had 16 points on 7 of 9 shooting and dished out six assists, while sparking an 11-1 run in the fourth quarter that allowed his team to pull away.
A 6-foot-7 combination of length and speed with a good passer’s eye and a nose for defense, Livingston has fashioned himself into one of the better backup point guards in the league despite lacking Curry’s greatest strength—3-point shooting. Curry drained a league-record 402 shots from beyond the line this season, while Livingston, a career 19 percent shooter from deep, all but abandoned such attempts, taking just 12. He more than made up for it inside of 20 feet, however, using his superior size at his position to post up smaller guards or just shoot over them. HIs 53 percent on 2-pointers was the second-highest of his career.
Whether he’s staring in Curry’s place or not, Livingston has been a calming force for the defending champs, averaging 18.8 and 19.5 minutes per game over his two seasons in Oakland and appearing in 78 games each time. This is in stark contrast to his early career, where a gruesome leg injury caused him to miss a year-and-a-half of action. He came back and played for seven different teams—not including a stint in the D-League—endured multiple trades and was even cut three times before he was able to mold his current skillset and rediscover some of the old spring he showed as a young Clipper.
Until Curry takes the court again, there will be an unusual amount of spotlight on Livingston as he keeps the point guard seat warm in the midst of a title defense. In 47 career playoff games (11 starts), he has averaged 7.1 points, 3.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field.
Those numbers aren’t gaudy, but the Warriors will need Livingston to continue playing his unique style in order to maintain their footing on the NBA’s mountaintop.