Liggins-Thomas matchup a key to Celtics-Cavaliers (Dec 29, 2016)

BY AP • December 29, 2016

By the time the Cleveland Cavaliers take the floor Thursday night, it will have been a full week since the last time DeAndre Liggins scored a point. Yet LeBron James heaped high praise on him in advance of their game against the Boston Celtics.

Liggins is 0 for 4 in his last two games as the starting shooting guard. He might be J.R. Smith's replacement while Smith is out with a fractured thumb, but he certainly can't replace Smith's game as a dead-eye shooter. Liggins' game is predicated on his defense and toughness. James says that's exactly what the Cavs have needed since Matthew Dellavedova left in free agency last summer.

"What Delly gave us was grit," James said. "Delly gave us a grit like, 'I don't care what y'all say, I'm out on this floor to defend, I'm out on this floor to make plays and no matter what y'all say that I can't accomplish, I'm gonna try to overachieve that.' We lost that in Delly and rightfully so for the first part of the season, first few weeks we was missing that. Liggs gives us that."

Coach Tyronn Lue keeps encouraging Liggins to shoot open 3s because he was a 43 percent shooter from deep last season in the Development League. James made clear, however, the Cavs aren't asking him to score. They're asking him to make life miserable on opposing point guards by defending them full court -- James joked that Liggins defends guards for 96 feet even though the court is 94 feet.

He most recently has held his own while guarding the Warriors' Steph Curry and the Pistons' Reggie Jackson. James trusts him to shoot when he's open, but wants him to concentrate on defense and grit.

"He gives us that pit bull out on the floor that's like, 'I'm here to just work. I'm going to make you work every single possession. I know you don't know my name yet, I know you don't know my game yet or what I'm about, but I'm going to make you work,'" James said. "We've got that in Liggs. And that's huge for our team. Obviously you know what Delly did for us the last couple years and Liggs has picked that up. It's been a diamond in the rough for us and we're happy to have him."

Liggins' next assignment will be Isaiah Thomas, who has guided Boston to wins in six of seven games since he returned from a groin injury. Thomas has averaged 29 points in those seven games.

"He's just relentless," Celtics center Al Horford told the Boston Herald. "Him just finding creative ways to finish, it really surprises me. ... He's at the point now that he's making reads on when to go score and when to kick the ball out, and basically he's putting it all together. That's hard to do, to have a good balance of scoring and kicking it out, and I think he's starting to recognize that because people are putting a lot of attention on him."

This is the Celtics' second trip to Cleveland after the Cavs beat them 128-122 in early November. Kyrie Irving missed practice for the Cavs on Wednesday because he was ill, although Lue said he is still expected to play Thursday against the Celtics.

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