Twelve years ago, it might not have seemed far-fetched for Shaun Livingston to dominate on this stage.
He was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, a 6-foot-7 point guard who showed flashes of being a dynamic playmaker.
But a devastating knee injury in 2007 sent Livingston on an 11-team journey to find his niche, and he showed it off in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. Livingston was the savvy court leader the Golden State Warriors needed against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Livingston came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points and lead the Warriors to a 104-89 victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Livingston led a triumph that was fueled by Golden State’s second unit, a necessity on a night when Livingston’s point total equaled that of Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined.
“It’s all a feel,” Livingston said. “Just being aggressive out there. (Curry and Thompson) command so much attention, especially Steph off the pick-and-roll, so we try to make ourselves available for them, and be able to make plays and relieve pressure from them.”
Livingston did things his way. He missed just 2 of 10 shots, all from two-point range. Not even attempting a three-point shot makes Livingston an anomaly among Warriors guards.
“First of all, he just played a great game,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “But I thought he looked for his openings. He was very aggressive.”
Livingston also had four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. In addition, he doubled the scoring output of Cleveland’s bench.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said Livingston’s size (6-foot-7) gave the Eastern Conference team problems.
“No matter who we try to put in front of him, he’s always going to be big at the point guard position,” Lue said. “So we tried to put a bigger defender on him, but he got to his spots, to the free-throw line, 12 feet in on the baseline and got to his shot, and he hurt us with that (Thursday). So we’ve got to continue to keep length on him and try to make it harder and be more physical with him.”
Thompson said Livingston’s length is always a problem.
“He’s so bouncy, too,” Thompson said. “So he plays a lot bigger than 6-7. He’s such a mismatch with guards out there. That’s the best Shaun’s played all year, and he’s been great for us all year. Like I’ve said before, to me he’s the best backup point guard in the NBA.”
When Livingston wasn’t frustrating the Cavaliers, Andre Iguodala was another reserve who was too much for Cleveland. He had 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists in addition to his usual solid defense.
“I think Bob Fitzgerald, our TV guy, calls Andre the adult in the room for us,” Kerr said. “He is the adult in the room. He always settles us down, and he knows exactly what’s happening out there.”
Livingston and Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP, made sure the off night for Curry and Thompson did not doom the Warriors.
Curry shot 4 of 15 for 11 points, and Thompson was 4 of 12.
Also helping make up for the loss of scoring at guard was Leandro Barbosa with 11 points off the bench.
“(The reserves) really changed the game and allowed us to win (Thursday),” Curry said.
The Warriors relied on their defense and bench, while the Cavs struggled to find a spark from someone other than their top three players.
Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 26 points, but he shot 7 of 22. LeBron James shot 9 of 21 and finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Kevin Love had 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting.
Still, the Cavs overcame a 13-point deficit and led 68-67 with 2:12 left in the third period. But the Warriors went on a 14-0 run to take an 82-68 lead with 10:13 to play, with the reserves doing much of the damage to start the fourth.
The Cavs shot just 38.1 percent and committed 17 turnovers that led to 25 points for the Warriors.