OAKLAND — Mid-March was a great time for Shaun Livingston’s life (his daughter Tyler Marie was born in February), but it was decidedly not so great for his basketball energies and fortunes.
His body didn’t feel great. He was tired. The Warriors were in their own midseason funk, on the harshest stretch of their schedule, and Livingston’s performance level, as a leader of the “second unit” that starts the second and fourth quarters, was stalling, too.
“I think the season was kind of catching up with me a little bit,” Livingston told me after practice Wednesday. “Just wasn’t performing the way that I wanted to perform.”
Livingston’s play is never properly measured by statistics, because he’s such a versatile, thoughtful player. But back in early March, Livingston’s numbers were alarming — low assist totals, shaky shot-taking, and most especially, the struggling output of the “second unit” with Livingston.
It all came to a head during that long East Coast trip, a one-game “homestand” and then two more road games, including the loss in San Antonio on March 11 when Livingston started and Steve Kerr rested all of his big headliners.
Livingston, 31, is grand NBA story due to his incredible comeback from a shattering leg injury early in his now 14-season career, but that trauma always raises the possibility that his body might wear down at some imminent point.
Plus, Livingston is a free agent this summer, and obviously with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala also coming up for new contracts, Livingston could imagine what might be developing.
Then Kerr switched Livingston with Ian Clark, moving Clark into the “second unit” and Livingston into mainly playing alongside Stephen Curry at the end of the first and third quarters.
What happened? Livingston started playing faster and better, Clark blended nicely with Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Iguodala and especially David West, and the Warriors went on a run … which led them directly to Monday’s Game 4 closer in Utah, when Livingston was an otherworldly plus-28 in the plus-minus in 17 sublime minutes.
Most of them beside Curry and enhancing everything Curry does.
“Now I’m playing with Steph — I guess the load, it wasn’t as heavy,” Livingston said. “With the second unit, I was more carrying the scoring load a little bit, looking for my shot, being more aggressive, as opposed to now, being more of a facilitator. That’s more of a comfort role or natural role for me.
“I think I can do both, but at the same time, it’s just about whatever the team needs and that’s kind of what the team needed. We kind of took off after that.”
In Game 4, Livingston made a tough turn-around in the lane and swatted a Derrick Favors inside shot — “off a double-team,” Livingston was quick to remind me — which are only two of the little ways he helps piece together some of the Warriors’ finest moments.
This is essentially the Leandro Barbosa role of the past few seasons — which Barbosa handled a little randomly and with great flash and fanfare.
Livingston is a more subtle player, certainly a much better defender than Barbosa, and when he’s getting large minutes with Curry, Livingston can get into the nooks and crannies that force a defense, maybe, to take its eye off of Curry. Curry is incredible when he’s the main ball-handler, of course, but he can also consume a defense when someone else initiates the offense and Curry can just race behind screens and find little openings at the three-point line.
“Just trying to take a little of the burden off of him,” Livingston said of Curry, “take some burden off myself, and just play.” It is also notable that Livingston’s energy was a low-ebb specifically in March … when the most significant Warriors action was months away. Was that a little on purpose?
Now Livingston’s legs feel good, he is at full power, and that all is happening in the playoffs, when he has been at his best for the Warriors, anyway. (See: Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals vs. Cleveland.)
Livingston’s resurgent play also underlines his calm presence in the locker room, paired with Green’s boisterousness, Iguodala and Curry’s wry humor, Kevin Durant’s focus and all the rest.
Livingston said the veteran, booming-voiced West is “like the supervisor” of the bench and locker room, so I asked Livingston for a description of his own role.
“I’m the counselor, I guess,” Livingston said, right on point as usual.
Livingston, 31, has fought through a hand injury that kept him out of several first-round games, but he’s back in the middle of the rotation now.
And in a few months, Livingston will hit free agency again, with eyes wide open. If Durant re-signs with the Warriors for his maximum, the Warriors would have to drop their Bird Rights to Iguodala and Livingston and then could only re-sign either of them for a very low rate.
If Durant takes a strict 20 percent raise, then Iguodala and/or Livingston could re-sign without regard to the cap.
But for a while, especially in February and early March, it was looking like the Warriors might consider just walking away from Livingston. Did Livingston worry about that?
“It’s easy to think about that, man,” Livingston said. “It’s tough when things aren’t going your way, especially in a contract year, it causes you maybe to think about it. But you can’t over-think it.
“It’s still one goal, right? If we win, everybody looks good. That’s the mindset I’ve always had as a kid. …
“I’d love to come back. But I do understand — it’s the business part of it. If that would happen, it wouldn’t be the first time for me. I’m not going to sit there or focus on that while we’re trying to chase something greater.”
The Warriors are eight victories from that ultimate goal, and Livingston is right in the middle of this, playing crucial minutes next to Curry, and showing once again just how vital he is to almost everything they do.