Zero-degree temperatures and Friday rush-hour traffic kept the last bus carrying Clippers players and coaches from arriving at Chicago’s United Center until less than 35 minutes remained before tip-off on Jan. 25.
Any player would have been expected to come out cold, given the lack of a warmup, and Lou Williams, who was among those on the last bus, was no exception. The Clippers’ sensational sixth man missed his first three shots.
But Williams opened the second quarter by making a 26-footer, a layup and a pair of midrange jumpers. In the third quarter, he scored eight consecutive points. In the fourth, he dished four assists.
On a night in which the Clippers might have shrugged off a loss to circumstance, Williams led the Clippers to a victory and produced not only the first career triple-double in his 14-year career — 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists — but another chapter in the legend of Lou, the player who has redefined what it means to be a scorer, and reserve, in the NBA.
“This one I’ll celebrate,” Williams said that night.
Performances such as that mean Williams could be celebrating again now.
Williams can tie former Clipper guard Jamal Crawford as the only three-time sixth man honorees in league history Monday when the NBA hands out its annual awards at a ceremony in Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar. Other finalists for top reserve include Clippers teammate Montrezl Harrell and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis.
Along the way, Williams has done something even more difficult than become one of the league’s most feared scorers despite limited minutes: He has brought a rare cool to an often unglamorous role. No reserve in NBA history has scored more points or name-checks in Drake tracks than Williams, a 6-foot, 180-pound guard who boasts a signature pair of underwear and celebrities among his admirers.
“He’s the only person on the team who can kind of calm me down, other than Doc, you know?” teammate Patrick Beverley said. “So you got to respect Lou in that standpoint, and he’s cool, he leads by example. When he talks, people listen.”
All things considered, he would not have chosen this path for himself when Philadelphia drafted him 45th overall in the 2005 draft out of Georgia’s South Gwinnett High.
His first two seasons, Williams barely budged from the bench. During his last two, both with the Clippers, he has become a force off it.
His 45 points against Minnesota on Feb. 11 were the most by a reserve since 2009.
“He’s one of the best scorers we have in our game in the modern time,” one scout told the Los Angeles Times last season — and that was before Williams became only the third NBA player to average at least 20 points in fewer than 27 minutes a game. The other two — Joel Embiid in 2016-17 and Michael Jordan in 1985-86 — played fewer than 32 games and each were 22. Williams did it while playing 75 regular-season games at age 32.
Williams was often lauded by Clippers coaches and executives for his role mentoring younger guards such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson.
“He’s perfected how to come off the bench and be a scorer,” coach Doc Rivers said. “There’s nobody in the history of the game that’s done it better. Jamal was good at it, John Havlicek … was the inventor of it in a lot of ways, but Lou has taken it to another level.”
Only Dallas’ J.J. Barea handled the ball in the pick-and-rolls more often than Williams this season and only Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, D’Angelo Russell and Donovan Mitchell — all starters — scored more total points off the play, according to data from Synergy. Williams teamed up most often in pick-and-rolls with Harrell and they became one of the league’s most difficult combinations to guard.
Harrell’s candidacy as a top reserve was built on that offensive efficiency. Of the 22 players who averaged at least three possessions a game as the roll man in the pick-and-roll during the regular season, Harrell ranked second in points per possession and scoring frequency.
Rivers joins Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and Denver’s Mike Malone as finalists for coach of the year.
“I’m very biased,” Frank said. “I think Doc did as good a job as he’s ever done in terms of being a coach of the year candidate.”