The Warriors threw the kill switch at the start of overtime in their 124–114 win over the Cavs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Cleveland was reeling after J.R. Smith’s fateful mistake at the end of regulation, and Golden State finished them off with their best lineup, one they hadn’t used all game. The lack of talent in the Warriors’ supporting cast has been exposed without Andre Iguodala, who went down with a knee injury halfway through the Western Conference finals. Shaun Livingston is their only reliable reserve, and the Cavs had no answer when he filled Iguodala’s role as the fifth option next to their four All-Stars in overtime.
Livingston is the closest thing to Iguodala on their roster. At 6-foot-7 and 192 pounds, he’s a super-sized point guard who can score at will in the post, create offense for his teammates, and defend multiple positions. While he’s not on the same level as Iguodala defensively, he gives Golden State another body to throw at LeBron James, and he can handle almost everyone else on Cleveland’s roster. There’s nothing flashy about Livingston’s game: He just understands his role on both ends of the floor and doesn’t make any mental mistakes. He’s always where he is supposed to be, and he stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, three assists, two rebounds, and one steal in 18 minutes in Game 1.
Livingston is all that is left of “strength in numbers,” the rallying cry Warriors head coach Steve Kerr gave his team when they won their first title in 2015. That group wasn’t just the Lineup of Death and a bunch of scrubs. They had Andrew Bogut, a former no. 1 overall pick, and David Lee, a two-time All-Star, in the frontcourt, and Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, a former Sixth Man of the Year, on the perimeter. Livingston is the only one still in the NBA, and Golden State has filled out the rest of its bench with second-round picks and veterans on the minimum, none of whom have answered the bell in the playoffs.
Kevon Looney, the no. 30 overall pick in 2015, has assumed Iguodala’s place in the starting lineup. He’s a 22-year-old who moves like an old man, and he doesn’t have a standout skill. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not quite big enough to be a deterrent at the rim, and he’s not quite mobile enough to be a lockdown perimeter defender. Looney can’t create his own shot or space the floor, either, so he mostly hangs out by the rim on offense, clogging up the lane and allowing Cleveland to send extra defenders at Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. Small sample sizes can be misleading, but it’s probably not a coincidence that those four had a plus/minus of minus-9 in 18 minutes with Looney in Game 1, and plus-10 in five minutes with Livingston.
The other options for that fifth spot are pretty unappealing. The Warriors roster is overloaded with big men who don’t have much value in a pace-and-space game. Zaza Pachulia and David West, their top two centers last season, are practically unplayable. Zaza has played 20 minutes in the postseason, and West is their only rotation player with a negative net rating (minus-2.7 in 151 minutes). While JaVale McGee gave them a spark at the start of the second half, he’s still prone to baffling mental errors, like this possession in the third quarter, when he got rejected by the rim on a dunk attempt despite no defender being within 5 feet of him. Jordan Bell is their most talented center, but he’s an excitable rookie who has never quite earned Kerr’s trust.
The Warriors are at their best when they go small with Green or Durant at the 5, but they don’t have enough perimeter options to fill out those lineups without Iguodala. Nick Young is averaging 2.9 points a game on 34.1 percent shooting in the playoffs, and his defensive awareness comes and goes. Quinn Cook is targeted on defense and he’s played only six minutes since missing several wide-open shots in the final moments of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. Second-year wing Patrick McCaw, who was supposed to add some athleticism to the rotation, is still recovering from a frightening fall at the end of the regular season that sent him to the hospital. Kerr mentioned before Game 1 that McCaw might play a bigger role in the series, but it will be tough for him to get in a rhythm when he’s played only nine minutes in the past two months.
There’s a clear difference when Livingston is in the game instead of those players. The Warriors have a net rating of plus-25.8 in the 23 minutes he has played with their four All-Stars in the playoffs, even higher than their net rating with Iguodala (plus-22.9 in 110 minutes). That number drops to plus-11.7 in 110 minutes with Looney. They play Golden State basketball when Livingston is the fifth option: All five players can handle the ball, make plays for others, and score, and everyone but Curry can comfortably switch screens and defend multiple positions. A lineup is only as strong as its weakest link in the playoffs, and there are no weak links when Livingston is the worst player.
The problem is that Kerr seems to have put a firm cap on Livingston’s minutes. He has averaged 18 minutes per game in four seasons with the Warriors, and he has played more than 25 minutes in a game only once in the past two seasons. Before signing with the Warriors in 2015, he was known mostly for a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2007. Livingston sat out the following season, and then played for seven teams over the next seven seasons, including two separate stints with the Wizards. That’s how long it took for him to slowly adjust his game to compensate for his diminished athleticism. He has been a valuable player for the Warriors over the past four seasons, and Kerr doesn’t have any interest in pushing his body too far.
It’s easy to forget what an exciting prospect Livingston was before the injuries. He was the no. 4 overall pick in the 2004 draft, part of one of the last classes of high school players who went straight to the league. His combination of size, speed, and skill at the point guard position was practically unheard of at the time. He was the same mismatch nightmare in the post for smaller guards that he is now, except he had the burst to go wherever he wanted on the court. The lack of a consistent 3-point shot may have wound up holding him back from stardom, but his incredibly high basketball IQ and defensive versatility would have made him a high-level starter for a long time.
Longevity is the greatest testament to a player’s skill. The average NBA career is about five seasons long. There are waves of incredible athletes who wash out of the league every season because they don’t have a firm grasp on how to play the game. Livingston is only 32 years old and has already been in the league for 13 seasons, and he is under contract for two more with the Warriors. After bouncing around the NBA for almost a decade, he is now in the perfect position. He’s playing with three of the greatest shooters of all time, and their ability to space the floor and draw the toughest defenders allows him to kill smaller and weaker defenders in the post. The Cavs have no choice but to put players like Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver, and J.R. Smith on him.
Cleveland has a chance to make the Finals competitive if Iguodala doesn’t return, since the Cavs can take turns picking on Golden State’s weakest link for most of the game. Kerr probably can’t afford to start Livingston, since that would dramatically weaken his bench. He staggered Livingston’s and Curry’s minutes in regulation, and he would have been forced to use some truly gruesome lineups if both were sitting out at the same time. The one mistake he likely won’t make in Game 2 is closing the game without his five best players on the floor.
Kerr likes to play the long game over a series, wearing down his opponents with body blows until he goes for the finisher. After giving Livingston 16 minutes per game in the first six games of the Western Conference finals, he pushed him to 24 in Game 7. Livingston played 18 on Thursday. Those extra six minutes are the extra gear that Golden State has in reserve. Every spot on a lineup is precious in the playoffs, and none of the healthy players on their roster can fill that fifth spot like Livingston. Strength in numbers is dead, but a backup point guard as good as Shaun Livingston is still an incredible luxury. He already has two rings. He may end up with a lot more before his career is over.