Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue made his way through the visitors locker room at Madison Square Garden -- aka “The World’s Most Famous Arena” -- on Wednesday and his gaze settled upon DeAndre Liggins, perhaps the least famous member of his team.
“Look at him,” Lue said, directing the attention of a couple of reporters across the room toward the Cavs’ training camp invitee turned surprise starting guard. “Ready to bite a m-----f-----.”
That was praise from Lue, who saw the defending NBA champs stumble through a recent three-game losing streak only to be dug out of that hole last week, in part, by Liggins -- last season's D-League defensive player of the year -- and his defensive attitude as he filled in for injured starter J.R. Smith.
“He’s a quiet guy, shy, but he’s been doing the same thing he’s always done,” Lue explained before the Cavs' 114-84 win over the Miami Heat on Friday night. “Just the biggest difference now, he’s playing with the starters and now he doesn’t have to handle the ball as much. He doesn’t have to make plays. So now he can just do what he does, and that’s defend, maul people on defense.”
Prior to the Heat game, Liggins sat in front of his locker, only with a much different look on his face than before the game in New York two days earlier. He had just received his D-League championship ring for his win back in April with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Miami’s D-League affiliate.
“We beat the L.A. D-Fenders,” Liggins said. “Game 7.”
Normally, the only Game 7 ever talked about in the Cavs' locker room is the one that happened in June against the Golden State Warriors.
“Well, no,” Liggins explained when the other Game 7 was brought up. “It was a best-of-three. But we won one, then they won one, so it was like a Game 7.”
The following is a Q&A with Liggins about getting the nod with the Cavs' first unit when Smith got hurt, his uphill climb to make it in the NBA and his complicated life off the court.
Dave McMenamin: You signed with the Cavs this offseason on a partially guaranteed deal. Were there any other options you were weighing?
DeAndre Liggins: I had the choice of Atlanta or here, but my agent told me to come here. Of course, he knew better than I could because he talked to the front-office people. I know since I’ve been in this league that nothing has been guaranteed to me. I’ve had to work for everything, so me coming to training camp [on a non-guaranteed deal], it was something I was used to. The only thing that was different was this team won the Finals last year and it was just crazy. So, I’m up to challenges, and since I’ve been in this league I’ve had to make teams through training camp. That’s something I’m used to. That’s how I’m built, and that’s something I’m going to always carry with me.
DM: After the Knicks win, you posted a screengrab from the game broadcast showing you staring off into the distance when you were on the bench. You wrote, “I don’t even know how I played tonight, you was on my mind the whole game,” as a tribute to your cousin, who died. How are you coping?
DL: When I woke up [the day of the game], I received a text from my auntie saying that he died. But I don’t have no full details yet about what really happened. I know he got set up. But I don’t know the full details of it, other than he was shot.
That’s one of my favorite cousins. His name was Bruce, but we called him "L.A." He was 27 and I’m 28. So it was just crazy. Me and him talked every day, on a daily basis. Just after the Toronto game [on Monday], he called me, we talked. It was like, the next morning, get up for the Knicks shootaround and he’s gone. So, it’s crazy.
DM: What happened?
DL: It was in Houston, Texas. He had moved from Chicago to Houston with his daddy because, you know, Chicago is a tough place. He was going to Houston to redefine his life and do better for himself and this happened. So, it’s a heartbreaker.
DM: What’s it been like to have this professional success with the Cavs while grieving for your cousin?
DL: Right now it’s just a lot of hidden emotions. I haven’t really [processed it]. For me, it’s like, I can’t believe it. A person like that can be gone that quick. We talked every day. He’d always give me an assessment before the game, tell me what to do after the game. Talk, text, FaceTime, all of that.
DM: What has allowed you to take advantage of this opportunity?
DL: I mean, I just do what I do. That’s bring energy to the team, do all the intangibles and knock down open shots. I mean, I’m playing with three great players on the court, and every opportunity I got an open shot, just take it and be aggressive and play within myself. That’s what I’ve been doing for the two games.
DM: Ty Lue said the knock on you coming into the league was that you couldn’t shoot, and in your first extended minutes with Cleveland you hit a 3 in Toronto to extend the Cavs’ lead from six to nine late to help put the Raptors away.
DL: I spent a lot of time in the summer developing my shots, and the thing about it -- they brought us in, the training camp guys in, before the rest of the guys came in and I really focused a lot on shooting every day and got constant repetition. Even before that in the summer, being at Kentucky with the guys -- I was going through actual practice with them like I was still there. It was exciting. It just brought back a lot of memories and it was good just to stay in shape and things like that. Playing with the Kentucky guys and working on my game and working on my shot because I know I’m a 3-and-D guy. I know my shot can be better right now, but I have confidence in it to knock down open shots.
DM: How can you compare life with the Skyforce to life with the Cavs?
DL: I mean, the Skyforce was great. I played for them two years -- 2014 and last year. They are a first-class organization, the Cavaliers, and of course Miami is a first-class organization. They really helped me develop my game. I got constant repetition. They gave me a chance because after that OKC incident, they gave me an opportunity and I took full advantage of it.
DM: You were arrested and charged with seven felony counts in a domestic violence case in 2013, leading to your release from the Thunder. Does that still follow you?
DL: I learned a lot from it. Domestic violence is a big thing [that’s talked about in society] now. I learned from it. I became a better person, a better parent. I’m still taking counseling for it. My child’s mom is, too. So, we’re both in a good place right now. I know that’s a big issue right now in today’s world.
DM: What type of counseling?
DL: I’m taking individual counseling, and the NBA set me up with a person who will meet with me once a month and we touch base.
DM: In large part because of that incident, your career took a detour and it almost feels like you’re a rookie trying to latch on with the Cavs, even though you were drafted in 2011.
DL: It helps a lot because I’ve done been through it. I’ve done been a rookie and not played with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. But the thing is, you watch and you learn as much as you could, and you take that with you. And when your opportunity comes, then you’re ready and prepared for it.
DM: Who has helped you during your time in Cleveland?
DL: Champ [James Jones], Bird [Chris Andersen]. I mean, all these guys give me pointers. Channing Frye, he’s a big help. All of these guys give me pointers. Or I learn it from them just watching them. The greats -- [LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love] -- just watching these guys."
DM: I can’t help but notice that tattoo on your right shoulder. Is that, um, your face?
DL: This is my brother. He passed away in 2002 in Chicago. I got a chain [with his face on it], too. He was older. Maurice. ... I’d never get a tattoo of myself.
DM: I’m sorry to hear that. There is a striking resemblance. What happened?
DL: Shot. South Side of Chicago. That’s "Chi-Raq" -- that’s what it’s called. I haven’t seen the movie. I heard it was terrible. But it should be out on DVD by now. I’m going to try to find it on Amazon or something.
DM: You could have used that DVD when the Cavs went to the White House to honor their championship. [Liggins didn't attend the ceremony, since he was not on last season's team.] What did you do, stay in the [hotel] room and watch a movie?
DL: I went to the mall. I went to the mall and I was looking at guys’ Instagram posts. I wanted to go to meet [President Barack] Obama. But I just went to the mall, chilled out, walked around. That’s it.
DM: The guarantee date for your contract is coming up in about a month. Does that add pressure to you to perform?
DL: I think it’s January 10th. Ain’t no pressure. My job is to get better every day, and when that day comes, that’s when I worry about it. But right now I’m taking it one day at a time and continue to get better as a player and a person and try to help this team win as many games as possible when my opportunity presents itself.