In his three-year Clippers career before the start of this season, Lou Williams was the best second-unit player in the league. He had averaged 20.4 points and 5.4 assists in 29.4 minutes per game, a veritable starter who just happened to begin games on the bench.
The start of the 2020-21 season hadn’t been so kind to Williams. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Bulls, Williams was averaging 8.9 points and 2.6 assists in 20.3 minutes per game.
Part of the offensive struggle has been the loss of his tried and true pick-and-roll parter, Montrezl Harrell. Ivica Zubac is a wonderful roller, but he doesn’t catch the ball as cleanly as Harrell did. Another problem was that Williams has been sharing the floor with multiple other ball handlers. Ty Lue was staggering his stars, meaning Kawhi Leonard or Paul George was on the floor at all times, and one or both of Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson often plays with Williams in the bench unit.
To be fair, the Clippers sixth man hadn’t necessarily been ineffective — his shooting percentages from the field are all above average — but his volume had gone down significantly, and Williams isn’t as threatening to a defense if he isn’t pouring it on. As George said postgame Sunday, “he didn’t win Sixth Man for being a passer.”
The Chicago game happened to be the 11th of the season for the Clippers, and that gave Lue a natural reflection point to assess what had been going well in the first ten. The coach’s conclusion was that the combination of Williams, Kennard, and Jackson wasn’t working. Instead of playing the trio together, he’d stagger them; Kennard would get run with the starters, and Williams would be the lead ball handler at the start of the second quarter. In addition to giving Williams more creative control, the modified arrangement put a defensive-minded guard, Patrick Beverley, next to Williams to balance things out.
“I was just trying to play within the system, trying to be a positive impact with the minutes that were allotted to me,” Williams said of his role in the first ten games. “I understand the phase that I am in my career. I understand that the identity of this team has slightly changed with bringing Luke in, bringing Serge in. that makes us a deeper team. Usually I’m called upon to be a big scoring threat. The first 10 games I think I was being more of a facilitator, wasn’t being as aggressive as I could be on the offensive end, and [Lue] told me that needed to change and go back to my old ways. That’s what’s natural to me.”
What resulted was his best game of the season to date. Williams scored 21 points and added four assists and three steals while earning nine trips to the foul line. Prior to Sunday, Williams had only taken 14 free throws total.
He was especially impactful late in the game, with 13 points and all of his assists and steals coming in the fourth quarter. After Zubac earned two free throws to start the period, Williams scored or assisted on the next 18 Clippers points.
“They let me get left,” Williams said about his surge. “Going left fadeaway, when I make that shot, it’s like a layup to me. That’s an energy play. That’s the equivalent of athletic guys getting a big dunk or defensive-minded guys getting a stop or a big steal. Allowing me to go left that just creates energy, that creates confidence, after that I was just in my bag.”
Surprisingly, that bag included some defensive tricks. He stole a pass from Zach LaVine and picked Coby White’s pocket twice, including once with 90 seconds left en route to a layup that put the Clippers up five and essentially iced the game.
The defense was mostly gravy. The Clippers wanted to get Sixth Man Lou Williams back and they did in a performance that serves as a reminder of what Williams is still capable of in year 16 of his career.
“He is one of the best scorers to do it,” George said. “So we want him to score, we need him to score and be Lou Williams. His scoring creates opportunities for everyone and he knows to make the right reads and what reads to find people. So (if) he just goes out there to score, everything else will fall into place.”
Williams theoretically has nine more games to prove to Lue that this is the way the Clippers should utilize him. He’s off to a roaring start.
More news for Tuesday:
- The NBA postponed another two games this week as more positive COVID-19 tests arise around the league. Commissioner Adam Silver said he expected the NBA to face some “dark days” in January and that league operations will proceed.
- Tim Cato and Jared Weiss examined the level of coronavirus transmission during games.
- Rob Mahoney also went into the challenge of playing a season outside of a bubble.
- Kevin Pelton discovered that this year’s Clippers have been the third most inconsistent NBA team of all time through eight games. The two teams in front of them? Also from 2020-21.
- Sarah Hagi wrote about the increase of Muslim women playing basketball in Canada.