OAKLAND, Calif. – Shaun Livingston put up nearly 100 free throws at the end of Friday’s NBA Finals practice, and that is somewhere around his norm.
Cleveland might have built the most expensive roster in the NBA. Way out West, Golden State developed perhaps the league’s deepest and best bench with a group of hard-nosed guys like Livingston eager to take the pressure off starters Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green whenever their names are called.
Or downright outplay the first unit when necessary on the biggest stage.
This close-knit band of backups regularly discusses how dependable they must be, telling each other to stay ready for any role.
“When you see a guy down, you make sure you pick him up and when you see a guy up make sure you keep him levelheaded because, you never know what’s going to be next in this game,” Marreese Speights said Friday. “When we’re at the gym, it’s, ‘Come on, let’s go get some shots,’ or hanging out on the road we sit down and talk about it, ‘We need each and every one of these players on this team to win another championship.’ Lunch, dinner, brunch, all that, we talk.”
The reliable reserves did just that in a 104-89 Game 1 Finals win Thursday night. The Cavaliers have to be at least a little bit concerned going into Sunday’s Game 2 knowing the Splash Brothers of Curry and Thompson will start sinking shots again soon enough.
Livingston played nearly 27 minutes in the opener of the rematch with his former Cleveland team and made 8 of 10 shots on the way to a postseason career-best 20 points.
Leandro Barbosa made all five of his shots for 11 points and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala contributed 12 points, seven rebounds, six assists.
“We’re not coming in to just give guys rest. We’re coming in to be productive and make plays and make things happen. It’s all about the mindset,” Livingston said. “It feels good to come out of a game like that when our stars don’t have it going and we still get the win. We believe in each other, and anybody can step up.”
Back to the drawing board for LeBron James and the Cavs to stop Golden State’s bench.
Livingston is the one who nine years ago nearly needed his left leg amputated after a gruesome knee injury. His comeback from that frightening 2007 fall suffered while with the Clippers has inspired Coach of the Year Steve Kerr.
Going for a layup, the guard’s leg buckled backward, parallel to the court, when he fell in a freak accident. He screamed and writhed in agony.
Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery.
It was during his time with Cleveland at the end of the 2012-13 season that Livingston began to truly trust his body again. It was a long road emotionally and physically to reach that point, so much so that Livingston said it was “almost like I was a retired player.”
Now, he’s on the court at Oracle Arena all smiles and gearing up for more in Game 2 when he gets his chance. Free throw after free throw.
“Shaun shoots the most. That’s how he keeps his rhythm,” Kerr said. “I think part of that is his injury history. He can’t afford to put a lot of wear and tear on his legs by shooting a ton of jump shots, so he shoots a ton of free throws.”
Livingston already proved his reliability this postseason when he stepped in for Curry as the MVP dealt with ankle and knee injuries that sidelined him for six games.
The 30-year-old Livingston scored 16 points in each of his three starts in place of Curry during Golden State’s 4-1 first-round series win against the Houston Rockets.
“Shaun’s a guy who has battled through much more than having to step up in a game. He’s been from the top to the bottom and back,” Green said.
Cleveland fell behind 1-0 in last year’s Finals after an overtime defeat in the opener, yet these record-setting Warriors believe they are far better equipped for the Finals stage the second time around.
Even with the superstars out of sync, Golden State took care of the ball – committing only nine turnovers – and played solid defense.
Those are the little things Kerr has been stressing all along as what it would take to capture another championship.
“Look, our two main scorers, every now and then, very, very rarely, are going to have a game like this, but it’s up to other guys to carry the load and step up and make shots,” center Andrew Bogut said, “and numerous different guys can do that.”
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