Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Paul George had missed four straight for the LA Clippers with a right toe injury.
Despite a previous string of single-digit scoring outings, Lou Williams stepped into the role vacated by LA’s second-leading scorer and wound up averaging 21.3 points a night on 55.6 percent shooting during that stretch. The Clippers managed to tread water by splitting the four games when things could’ve been worse.
With both George and Leonard absent against Cleveland, the Clippers turned to Williams once again in a rare spot start, his first of the season. And once again, Williams delivered with a game-high 30 points and 10 assists in a 128-111 victory.
“T. Lue called me on my way to the arena, said he thinks Kawhi’s gonna be out tonight,” Williams said during his postgame interview. “Did I wanna stay in my regular position or start? I know we needed a scoring punch so I told him I’d rather start, be in that position and it worked out tonight. I was able to take a more aggressive approach on the offensive end and help lead us to a win.”
Certified bucket-getters rarely need much traction to produce points in bunches, but you also forget that the 2020-21 season is Williams’ 16th in the NBA. Professionalism goes a long way towards sustainable excellence, which greatly explains Sweet Lou’s ability to navigate the changes new circumstances have forced him to adapt to this season.
The LA Clippers haven’t relied on Lou Williams as much this season, but they sure do like the ability to turn to him when necessary.
Tyronn Lue has made several noticeable changes since taking over as the Clippers head coach, a large reason they remain among the best in the Western Conference at 19-8. Both Kawhi and PG are averaging career-highs in assists, filling the playmaking void LA didn’t address through its point guard position.. Serge Ibaka took over the starting center position from Ivica Zubac, who started 70 games last season. Nicolas Batum has unexpectedly become an invaluable piece to the starting lineup.
But for Williams, most of the early portion of the new season was spent grappling with what his new coach took away from him.
Whereas Doc Rivers always seemed loyal to the guy who helped fill the years between the aftermath of Lob City and the arrival of Kawhi and PG better than anyone could’ve expected — despite trading Blake Griffin earlier in the year, the Clippers won 42 games in 2018 before returning to the playoffs in 2019 thanks largely to Williams, who won consecutive Sixth Man of the Year trophies — Lue harbors no such emotional attachment.
Having watched LA’s 2020 season unfold from the sidelines as Doc’s associate head coach, Lue saw first-hand how, despite his scoring prowess, Williams’ defensive limitations constantly put the Clippers in a bind.
With talents like Leonard and George, it wasn’t like LA lacked scoring anyway. They needed pieces to fit around those two stars, not step in their place. Luke Kennard was taller, stronger and far more comfortable playing off the ball. After the Clippers gave their offseason addition a four-year, $64 million extension, the hierarchy was clear.
Williams was still part of the team, just not in any way close to resembling what he’d grown accustomed to, and that was an adjustment with noticeable growing pains. Through the first 22 games of the season, he averaged 9.1 points on 37.9 percent shooting in 19.8 minutes a night. Stretched over a full season, each of those numbers would rank among if not the worst of his career.
This was the guy who led the Clippers in scoring in consecutive seasons with over 20 points a night en route to two SMOTY trophies. On those feisty Clippers teams without a clear-cut star, Williams was the closest parallel. Slowly but surely, however, the freedom those years offered has been stripped away, to the point where he’s looked for other ways to make an impact.
“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.”
These comments were made after Williams scored what was then a season-high 21 points in a win over the Bulls over a month ago. The irony is how well they apply to the last week of Clippers basketball because of how desperately Lue has needed them to.
When LA’s All-Star duo returns, who knows how much of that desperation will remain. Lue is still trying to find a place for a player supremely talented in a vacuum but without much purpose for this current team.
Williams has grappled with that reality. It can at least partially explain his early struggles, but these last five games indicate that it doesn’t eliminate what he does best. If and when the Clippers figure out how to make that work for them, one of the league’s legitimate contenders will have gotten noticeably scarier.