C.J. Williams capped a phenomenal game with the first game-winner of his NBA career. The rookie wing, playing on the 40th day of his 45-day two-way contract, appearing in his 27th game, and notching his 12th start, played 37 minutes and contributed 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 4 steals. He shot a hyper-efficient 5-7 from the field and 3-4 from deep, including the stone-cold game-winner in the video above.
I wrote in today’s game preview that the Clippers’ best hope for a win, missing five of their top players, was for “a supernova offensive explosion from Lou Williams and a strong inside performance from DeAndre Jordan, surrounded by enough random offensive production and defensive competence by the rest of the squad to come out on top.” Well, they got it. Lou Williams didn’t have his best performance of the season—he settled for some early shot clock threes in the fourth, and missed some normally-automatic shots in the lane—but he was still the bulk of the offensive attack, finishing with 34 points and 4 assists on 12-29 shooting. DeAndre Jordan was hyper-active around both baskets, with 25 points and 18 rebounds (including 8 offensive boards), and he hit 5 of 6 free throws when the Atlanta Hawks chose to intentionally foul him on three possessions in the final two minutes.
As we might have expected, it was piecing together enough production from the rest of the roster that turned out to be the tricky part, and they very nearly were unable to pull it off. After the offense flowed nicely in the first half, leading to a 58-47 advantage at the break, the Clippers hit some rough patches in the third and early fourth quarters, watching a 15-point lead turn into a deficit. It isn’t that individual performances were necessarily poor, but just that the depleted roster didn’t have a ton of available players who could be counted on for offensive production.
Jawun Evans had a spunky 13-point, 8-rebound, 4-assist, 4-steal performance, highlighted by poking away Malcolm Delaney’s dribble and drawing a loose ball foul late in the fourth quarter to win a crucial possession for the Clippers. Fellow rookie guard Tyrone Wallace, playing just his second NBA game after signing a two-way contract on Saturday, contributed 11 points, 2 rebounds, an assist, and 2 blocks in 19 minutes. Still, the team’s overall offensive difficulties came with these two running the show. Neither is much of a shooter, and Atlanta went under screens the entire second half, clogging the paint and making life difficult on Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan.
Perhaps more worrisome was the Clippers’ inability to get much production out of the forward positions. Wesley Johnson had a shaky but acceptable performance, with 5 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks on 2-7 shooting. Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker, however, were largely invisible off of the bench. Harrell had his worst night of the season, with no points and just 1 rebound in 14 minutes, going along with 2 turnovers and 4 personal fouls. While Dekker wasn’t as bad, he only managed 4 points on 2-6 shooting and 2 rebounds in his 16 minutes of play. It would have been really nice to get more production from these two role players with so much of the starting lineup out.
Doc Rivers kept a really short rotation tonight, playing all of his starters over 30 minutes (including 41 for Lou Williams), and going only nine deep on the bench. Willie Reed and Brice Johnson both didn’t play, and Sindarius Thornwell only came on for eight uneventful minutes. It’s clear that this isn’t a sustainable recipe for success—but that’s far from Doc Rivers’ greatest concern, considering that this depleted roster doesn’t have enough talent to win games consistently no matter how he manages his lineups.
And so the Clippers, on one of the happiest nights of the season, are left again where they’ve so often found themselves this season: coming off of an unlikely shorthanded victory, a few games below .500, hoping to survive long enough to still be in the playoff picture when their main players return from injury.
They have a likely loss on Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors, but two crucial games to close the week against the Sacramento Kings. They have to take both of those games against the Kings if they want to position themselves to move into the top 8 in the closing weeks of January, when they have multiple head-to-head match-ups against teams in the playoff race. Milos Teodosic will hopefully return on Thursday against the Kings, and he’ll help lift the overall offensive level of play for the entire supporting cast. Blake Griffin’s status is uncertain with a concussion, but he has passed some of the concussion protocol tests and will hopefully return sooner rather than later. We should also be getting updates on Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari in the next week or so, hopefully establishing clear timelines for their returns.
As the Clippers wait for those guys to return, the clock is ticking on tonight’s hero, C.J. Williams. C.J. has quickly become one of Doc Rivers’ most trusted players, starting the last 11 games and averaging 28 minutes, playing both shooting guard and small forward and guarding top scorers from opposing teams. But his game-winning three came on the 40th night of his two-way contract, which only allows him 45 days on the Clippers’ NBA roster. Even if the Clippers are able to utilize a creative travel schedule to make C.J.’s last 5 days on the NBA roster last 5 games, his last game will be January 17th against the Denver Nuggets. After that, it’s decision time for the Clippers, who will have to either send C.J. back to the G-League, convert his contract to a rest-of-season deal (and go into luxury tax territory), or release him.