Whatever approximation a Clipper fan might have of Corey Maggette’s Basketball I.Q., or Mike Dunleavy’s competence, or the precise effect of Quinton Ross’ presence on the court, there’s virtual unanimity among the Naçion about one thing: The team’s fortunes in the foreseeable future will rise and fall with Shaun Livingston’s development. It’s the one irrefutable truism, no matter where you stand on the other big questions.
So when Shaun’s patella pops out and he crumples to the floor in the opening minutes of the game, there’s more at stake than the “Jeez, I hope he’s okay” that usually punctuates a moment like this. Apart from anything he may or may not embody to a fan or spectator, Shaun is a 21-year-old kid who must be terrified beyond delirium when he feels his leg snap like a toothpick. He deserves the compassion of every basketball well-wisher.
Whether it’s fair or not, Shaun also embodies something larger. Shaun has been carrying around the hopes of the Naçion since he was drafted in 2004. On Saturday, he put together what might be the most professional game of his career – a 14 point, 14 assist effort against Golden State. Following the game, Mike Dunleavy said, “Until I tell him to pull back, I want him to push the ball every time and I want him to explore. I want him to use his abilities. That’s what could take us to another level.” And that’s exactly what Shaun is doing in the first quarter when he picks up a steal at the other end and initiates the break with Raymond Felton in pursuit. Four seconds later, Shaun is on the hardwood.
It’s been a while since I thought about Shaun Livingston in any meaningful context w/r/t the Clippers. His injury was painful to witness. As a result, most of us made him a human interest story. It seemed too crass to consider Shaun’s recovery in terms of its effect on the franchise’s fortunes, so we focused — rightly so — on the part of the story that was about a shy kid with natural talent trying to make it all the way back from a catastrophic injury.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now mark February 26, 2007 as the date the state of the franchise turned. True, things were already sour that season. The Clippers were 26-29; Chris Kaman had regressed; the playoffs were increasingly unlikely. But the significance of the moment isn’t chronological as much as it is psychogenic. Shaun did embody something larger, even though it’s possible he never would’ve put the package together. His departure from the Clippers’ active roster left a spiritual vacuum that’s been filled with waste.
Tonight, Shaun starts at point guard for the Thunder wearing number 14. He goes [2-5 FG, 2-2 FT, 6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers]. He wears a brace on his left knee.
- [1st, 11:40] One area where Shaun was fluent from day one was execution on the break. He hasn’t lost that. Nenad Krstic strips the ball away from Baron Davis and gets the outlet to Livingston at the time line. Russell Westbrook fills the lane to Shaun’s left. Shaun shuttles a pass to Westbrook, who streaks in for an easy lay-in.
- [1st, 10:11] Early offense as Livingston rushes it up court. The Clippers do a decent job of getting back. Baron plays in front of Livingston, who crosses from his right to his left, then backs Baron in at the elbow. Baron gives up a step, but not more. Shaun stops, pivots on his right, then takes an awkward rising jumper off his back leg. The shot is long.
Shaun never perfected his shooting mechanics in Los Angeles, which was one part of his development that was lagging at the time of the injury. His frame isn’t squared when he releases the ball. There’s too much arm and not enough leg in his shot. He still needs a little work.
- [1st, 5:02] Shaun spots up to the right of Durant on a controlled break. He’s wide open from 15, but the shot clanks high off the front of the rim. See above.
- [2nd, 7:58] Shaun has checked in for Kevin Durant at the 3 spot for the Thunder, with Earl Watson running point. On the defensive end, Shaun is assigned to Baron Davis, then later, Fred Jones. Kaman and Baron run a high S/R at the top of the circle. Livingston and DJ White — Eric Gordon’s classmate — trap. Baron swings the ball across his body to hit Kaman with a pass, but Livingston leaps backward and gets his fingertips in the passing lane. Jeff Green collects the ball and the Thunder get out on the break.
- [2nd, 5:42] Off DJ White’s block of Chris Kaman’s layup attempt, the Thunder go the other way. Watson pushes it up. Livingston runs the left sideline. As he glides over the arc, he signals to Watson. Livingston runs a basket cut simultaneous to Watson’s perfect lob pass. Livingston leaps, clears the rim by a good foot, and slams the ball down through the iron.
By any player in any circumstance, it’s a highlight dunk. For Shaun, I imagine it’s also an anthem.
- [3rd, 9:11] Shaun parks himself in the right corner. The ball works its way counterclockwise around the arc. When the pass arrives, Shaun has plenty of time to catch, turn, set, square his shoulders and release. The combination of Mike Taylor’s height [he gives up at least seven inches to Shaun], and the distance Taylor has to cover on the close-out gives Shaun plenty of time to nail the 20-footer.
Shaun plays solid defense on Baron, but the Clippers never ask to be challenged, so it’s hard to gauge how Shaun is using his length and what was once great lateral quickness, on the defensive end of the floor. Physically, he looks filled out. Based on what we know about his regimen during his recovery, it’s no surprise.
Shaun is the only person who truly understands his physical limitations, and it’s likely he doesn’t completely trust his impressions of what he can and can’t do. Whether he can become an impact NBA player is uncertain. The irony is that Shaun appeared more confident on the floor tonight than he did during most of his tenure as a teenager in Los Angeles.