I was fully ready to watch Cleveland drop a fourth straight on Monday night against the Toronto Raptors, but instead I got a wonderful surprise. Against the team that made it a priority to have home court advantage in the playoffs, the Cavs victory over the Eastern Conference runner ups brought a mild sense of relief to stop the bleeding after each loss. However, the most positive takeaway from the game wouldn’t be LeBron James’ 34 points or Kevin Love’s double-double. The most impressive performance came from the most unexpected of participants: Deandre Liggins.
Cleveland stated during the preseason that they were “blown away” by Liggins during training camp. The former D-League Defensive Player of the Year was called up from Miami’s D-League team to bring a defensive spark to Cleveland’s line-up. Until now, Liggins has been average at best. He played serviceably during garbage time, though being seated behind J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Jordan McRae, Liggins was plagued with the curse of being last on the rotation for shooting guards. However, with Smith going down to injury, and Shumpert playing his minutes as backup point guard, Coach Ty Lue took a risky decision and plugged Liggins into the rotation.
Liggins has spent ample time on the bench, registering 10 “Did Not Plays” this season alone, and hasn’t seen action for the past two games, seemed to be far past the days of his prime at the University of Kentucky. However, Liggins saw 21 minutes against the Raptors, most of which were played in the second quarter.
Liggins’ primary assignment was point guard Kyle Lowry. With Cleveland running a system that doubled on DeMar DeRozan, Liggins was left on an island against one of the scrappiest point guards in the NBA. Known for his tenacity, Monday night’s battle with Lowry proved Liggins to be an unyielding asset for Cleveland’s defense. While Liggins was off the floor, Toronto averaged a 129.2-point pace, 14 points higher than their year to date average. Liggins on the court, that number plummeted to 96.5, on pace for one of the lowest offensive ratings in the league. While some of this may be attributed to a ratcheted effort level by the Cleveland defense during this time, a quick look at Liggins’ effect on Kyle Lowry’s shows his individual impact.
When guarded by anyone besides DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Lowry had a career night. He shot 86% from the field, and 75% from deep. This compared to his 50% average career shooting, and 44% from three makes him look like a sure lock for player of the game; but, Liggins’ presence changed Lowry’s results drastically. On the same number of field goal attempts, Lowry shot 14.3% in total, 20% from three-point range. Liggins locked up Lowry’s ability to score, providing Cleveland with the critical series of stops that led to Cleveland’s streak-breaking victory.
After the game, Liggins commented on his defensive effort:
“I’ve always had that grit in me. I’m going to always carry that no matter what,” he said. “That’s how I was built. That’s how I was raised. I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’m just happy I’m in a good place right now, and I’m going to continue to build off it.”
The progression of Liggins may lead to several things. Liggins will likely see more minutes with J.R. Smith being listed day to day, and missing the next game against the New York Knicks. The real question is if Liggins is rotation calibre. If so he may help solve Cleveland’s defensive woes. At the least Cleveland hopes he might provide trade bait for a potential rebuilding team looking for a defensive specialist. For now, Liggins is looking more and more like the real deal for Cleveland’s defense.