Pierce sank the game’s decisive bucket with 2:57 remaining in double-overtime. The three-pointer gave the Nets a seven point lead while James—who had fouled out in the game’s first overtime—watched from the bench.
Playing without Dwyane Wade and on the second night of a back-to-back, the HEAT battled courageously, even after James was disqualified with 36 seconds remaining in the game’s first overtime. With the HEAT trailing by two points, 93-91, and James on the bench, Chris Andersen rebounded a Joe Johnson miss and Norris Cole’s 18-foot pull-up jump shot sent the game into the second overtime.
From there, it was all Nets. But all night, it was all Shaun Livingston.
All throughout the night, over the course of his career-high 51 minutes played, Livingston was simply dominant on both ends of the floor. He scored 19 points. His five assists came within the flow of the offense and he helped the Nets play with controlled patience. His game-high 11 rebounds were also a career-high and his three blocked shots and defensive versatility gave the HEAT chills all night.
In the end, Livingston turned in a career night in what may end up being a momentous win for his team as the Nets have won five straight and are suddenly the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs began today, the Nets would be pitted against the HEAT in the first round, and the Nets just so happen to be the first team to beat the HEAT twice this season.
The sudden resurgence has been quite a sight to behold, but it is nothing like the continued progression of Livingston. He has been a catalyst for the team's new lease on life. And he has done it after securing his own.
“Everybody on this team knows his journey,” Kevin Garnett said when asked about Livingston’s fine performance. “Everybody’s very familiar with his story and it couldn’t happen to a better dude. I see him work everyday and I’m very, very proud to be his teammate.”
And those in attendance were proud to watch him rise in the game’s biggest moments.
With the HEAT trailing and desperately seeking to tie the game, it was Livingston who did something that no NBA player has been able to do since April 2, 2008—he caused James to foul out of a regular season game. He cut off one of James' signature beelines to the basket and when the two collided, Livingston got the benefit of the whistle.
"I was just trying to make him uncomfortable," Livingston said. "He can get to any spot on the court... He can do it all, but in that situation, he was going to the run. I just tried to bait him into driving and beat him to the spot."
He did and in the process, he helped the Nets win not only their fifth straight win overall, but their third without Deron Williams. In his stead, Livingston has filled in capably, averaging 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game.
“He’s been huge for us,” Joe Johnson said on Friday night. And as for how he has filled in for Williams? Johnson sees Livingston’s versatility as one of the keys to the Nets sudden hot-streak.
“They’re two different point guards,” he said of Williams and Livingston. “Shaun is a long, lanky athletic point guard so it gives us a different look. He does so many different things. You can switch with him on defense, offensively, you can post him up and he’s a hell of a passer.”
What makes Livingston’s improbable rise even more inspiring, is that his career was thought to be over before it had even begun.
Almost eight years ago, I remember watching Livingston play for the first time in Madison Square Garden. On that night, February 7, 2006, his four points and five assists did not fill the stat sheet, but what I noticed about him immediately was that he seemed to be playing the game with a different sense of awareness than every other player on the floor.
The expediency with which he moved, made decisions and found teammates for good looks was unlike anything I had seen before, and he made many in attendance walk away in awe of his polished 20-year old game.
Lanky and rangy, Livingston was blessed with the dimensions of a small forward, yet had the ball handling ability, court vision and passing prowess of a point guard. His athleticism was off the charts and could only be matched by his impressive ability to consistently make good decisions with the ball.
That night, I walked away certain that Livingston would one day be an All-Star, but one year later, after his game had showed marked improvement, his career trajectory would change forever.
On February 27, 2007, as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, he essentially ripped his left knee in half, laterally, tearing his ACL, MCL, PCL and lateral meniscus. After missing the final 28 games of the 2006-07 season, Livingston missed the entire 2007-08 season and was released by the Clippers on July 10, 2008.
When his left knee and the Clippers seemed to have given up on him, he refused to give up on himself, and since then, slowly but surely, he has kept his faith and found himself back in an NBA rotation.
Now, with the Nets reeling and the season slipping away, out of necessity, he has been called to action and has responded amazingly.
“I’ve been through a lot, I’ve been in some rough places, especially right after my injury,” Livingston said on Friday. “Those doubts kinda turn to faith, obviously, and my family, everyone that's in my corner, God, it brought me a long way.”
Having traveled a long way, Livingston is focused on the present.
“I try not to think about it,” he said when asked if he felt he has reverted to the player he was before the 2007 injury. “You can’t live in the past,” he said dismissively.
The road back to this point has seen countless stops and numerous bumps. From Miami, Oklahoma City, Washington, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Cleveland, the road to Brooklyn has been long and circuitous.
“He was great,” HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “He’s really improved and he’s healthy now. He’s confident. Even as a competitor, you’re happy for him… He’s been on a long road to get to this point. He deserves it and he’s worked at it while he is pure about it.”
And on Friday night, that journey had led to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It pitted Livingston against a man wearing “King James” on the back of his jersey, but in the end, it was Livingston who reigned.
To that, we were all witnesses.
With 1:27 remaining and the Nets ahead by nine points, Livingston fittingly gave the Nets their largest lead of the night—11 points. He did so after using a Garnett screen and a spin-move to shake free from his defender on the play, Cole. Livingston, like he had done all night, rose majestically and easily soared through the air, dunking the ball for the second time that night.
Yes, Livingston soared through the air and glided across the court all night against the two-time defending NBA champions, but the movements he made at Barclays Center on his career night pale in comparison to the journey he has been on since February 2007.
With a renewed spirit, Livingston is rejuvenated. And with Livingston, the Nets are ascending.
Just how high they can collectively rise in Brook Lopez’s absence remains to be seen, but if Friday night’s victory was any indication, with the spirit, commitment and fight that was missing through the first three months of the NBA year—the best certainly seems as though it is yet to come—for both the Nets and Livingston alike.