The Miami Heat have developed a knack for closing out tight games with clutch last-second shots during their run to back-to-back NBA titles. If they hadn't, we'd be calling the San Antonio Spurs the defending champs right now.
And Miami had yet another opportunity show off its late-game effectiveness during Wednesday night's nationally televised game against the Brooklyn Nets. Trailing 96-95 with 3.5 seconds left, Chris Bosh believed he had a slight window to pass the ball to four-time MVP LeBron James as he cut toward the rim. The Heat were on the verge of yet another miraculous escape.
And then Shaun Livingston happened. The impossibly lanky point guard tipped the ball away at the last moment to seal another Brooklyn win.
Following the loss, Bosh lamented Livingston's length on the defensive end, per the New York Post's Tim Bontemps: “Shaun Livingston is 6-foot-8 with long arms, and he got a hand on it. That was it.”
That clutch swipe sealed Brooklyn's third win over the Heat on the season. If they can defeat Miami on April 8, the Nets will clinch an undefeated record against the Heat, a far cry for last season, when they went 0-3.
Of course, these are not the same Nets. General manager Billy King famously traded for future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the offseason and then added versatile reserve Andrei Kirilenko for mere pennies on the ruble, so to speak.
But those additions, while important, have not been as crucial to the team's success as the decision to sign Livingston to a one-year, $1.3 million deal to backup starting point guard Deron Williams. It is no coincidence that the Nets have gone 23-9 since head coach Jason Kidd inserted Livingston into the starting lineup for good on Jan. 2.
Livingston's story is well-known by now. Chosen by the Clippers out of high school with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2004 draft, he suffered a catastrophic knee injury during his third season. Though his comeback—which took nearly two full years—remains one of the most inspiring stories in recent NBA history, he has bounced around the league ever since.
The Nets are Livingston's seventh NBA franchise since 2008...and that doesn't include his two separate stints with the Washington Wizards.
Through it all, the indomitable Livingston has persevered. And it looks like he's finally found a home in Brooklyn.
Most Valuable Net?
At first blush, Livingston's numbers pale in comparison to fellow point guard Deron Williams, Brooklyn's highest-paid player and the nominal star of the team.
Despite his early-season struggles, Williams is averaging substantially more points and assists per 36 minutes than Livingston. He also sports a much higher effective field-goal percentage (eFG%), thanks to a huge discrepancy in three-point efficiency. Williams shoots a respectable 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, while Livingston shoots an embarrassing 16.7 percent.
Even the more all-encompassing advanced stats, like players efficiency rating (PER) and win shares per 48 minutes, rate Williams above Livingston.
|Livingston vs. Williams, per 36 minutes|
But those numbers cannot measure Livingston's impact on Brooklyn's lineups, particularly on defense.
Brooklyn has allowed only 101.1 points per 100 possessions since January 2, the fifth-best mark in the league. Part of that defensive renaissance can be credited to Kidd using power forward Kevin Garnett primarily as a small-ball center and the return to health of Kirilenko, a key cog in Brooklyn's second-unit defense.
But, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann pointed out, the impact of Livingston's length and defensive tenacity in the backcourt cannot be understated:
Playing small, the Nets have struggled on the glass, haven’t blocked many shots, and haven’t done a great job of keeping their opponents off the free throw line. But they’ve had defensive success due to contesting shots and forcing mistakes.
Kevin Garnett has been Brooklyn’s defensive anchor since Brook Lopez was lost for the season, but the Nets have gone 5-1 without KG in March. They’re allowing less than a point per possession because they still have backcourt length, which allows them to switch screens, help and recover and both get into the space of ball-handlers and into passing lanes.
As a 6-foot-7 point guard with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Livingston is the embodiment of Brooklyn’s new identity. He can smother opposing guards and switch onto forwards.
The Nets still struggle on the offensive end—ranking a mediocre 14th in offensive efficiency, even during their 2014 hot streak—which makes Livingston's defensive contributions all the more crucial. Brooklyn has stormed back into the playoff race after a slow start because of its defense, a defense keyed in large part by its point guard.
What Can the Nets Do in the Playoffs?
With Livingston keying a stifling defense and Pierce and Garnett chipping in veteran presence, the Brooklyn Nets seem like a team tailor-made for the postseason. Wednesday's win in Miami was yet another sign that the Nets will not go quietly, even against the league's best.
But there are still reasons for concern. Even if you lay aside the age and injury concerns with the roster, Brooklyn could still face a difficult road just to make it out of the first round.
As it currently stands in the Eastern Conference, the Nets would face the rugged Chicago Bulls in the first round. That would be a brutal series, regardless of which team gets home-court advantage.
Perhaps the easiest route to guaranteeing an easier first-round matchup would be to supplant the Toronto Raptors in the Atlantic Division. But Toronto still has a three-game advantage over Brooklyn—four, if you count the potential division-record tiebreaker—and shows no signs up slipping.
As good as Brooklyn's defense has been since starting Livingston, the Raptors have stayed right there with them, holding opponents to 101.2 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 2. And Toronto's ninth-rated offense during that time has been far superior to Brooklyn's.
The more interesting question might be what will become of Brooklyn's defensive linchpin in the offseason. Livingston will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the capped-out Nets will be paying through the nose, provided they can re-sign him at all.
Whatever the future may bring for Livingston and the Nets, these past two months have been a time to savor. The most unlikely player imaginable has stepped up and saved Brooklyn's season, and that's not something you see every year.
*All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats.