TORONTO — It was only a couple of seasons ago when Lou Williams was going left and pulling up on a dime in a Toronto Raptors uniform. He averaged 15.5 points over the course of the 2014-15 season, good for the Sixth Man of the Year award, but not a renewal of his contract when he became a free agent.
The Raptors were given a stern reminder of what they’re missing on Sunday night, as Williams torched the Raptors in the second half to lead a Los Angeles Clippers rally from down 18 to a 117-106 victory. He went to his go-to move over and over in the fourth quarter, finishing with 26 points and seven assists and a thoroughly satisfying revenge game for himself.
From being the ultimate “empty that clip” guy as a professional scorer to taking someone who held him at gun point one Christmas Eve to McDonald’s or even having two girlfriends, Williams has unequivocally committed to being his best self over the course of his career.
It’s taken him farther than many would have projected for the former second-rounder picked straight out of high school. This year, he made the all-star snub list and appears a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award with averages of 22.9 points and 5.5 assists, both career-highs.
The Raptors don’t have this guy. Someone who can pop off the bench and erupt to take over a ball game, someone who commands the attention of the opposing eyeballs to the extent where role players like Montrezl Harrell and Sindarius Thornwell can stay within the pockets of where their games thrive.
The Raptors’ second unit operates on a different frequency. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, where Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl relish playing off each other, as do Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. Then, there’s C.J. Miles who thrives off the helter skelter ways of the kids. In isolation, though, none can do what Williams does.
Siakam needs defenders stick close to VanVleet and Miles on the outside and Poeltl on the inside to pull off his left dribble move before spinning and finishing with the right hook. Miles needs the penetration of Wright and VanVleet to get off clean looks from the outside. Poeltl’s scoring is almost entirely based off the creation of everyone else.
There’s nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but it creates a scenario in which they must always be in sync, always operating in unison. Like finding the perfect scientific concoction in a chemistry lab, the smallest error in judgment, and it could all come crashing down.
As both teams’ respective benches checked in towards the end of the first quarter, Toronto would have been feeling good about their chances as theirs has been one of the best in the league over the course of the season. The mob — as they’ve come to be known — combined for 25 points in the first half and held Williams in check, too. The Clippers guard had just four points on 1-for-8 shooting, and was forced to his weaker right handed dribble multiple times.
With the Clippers holding on for dear life in ninth in the Western Conference playoff standings, head coach Doc Rivers knew he needed more from his best scorer.
“We got on Lou at halftime,” Rivers said after the game. “I told all the key guys, ‘You put yourself in this position, now it’s your job to step up and everybody else to follow and I thought those guys did that.'”
Toronto steadily lost momentum as the likes of Tobias Harris, Milos Teodosic and Austin Rivers kept piling on the pressure. The scores were tied at 80 entering the fourth quarter, Toronto’s big lead completely evaporated. And that’s when Williams went to work.
The Memphis native had six points and two assists as part of a 16-2 run for the Clippers to open up the fourth, forcing Toronto’s hand to bring their starters back in the game. Harrell and Boban Marjanovic played off him perfectly combined for 10 of their own.
“I made one, man,” Williams said after the game. “Made one going to my left, it’s my go to shot. Any time you see your bread and butter going, I think I made two of those in a row and everything else opened up after that.”
He finished with 18 in the fourth including 12 straight at one point, and for once, the Raptors bench had no answer. The Clippers bench only outscored their Toronto counterparts by four (53-49), but while Williams finished a plus-12 for the game, no one from the Raptors bench finished better than a minus-7.
For once, the energy of Siakam was neutralized by Harrell. The mobility of Poeltl was quelled by the immovable object that is Boban Marjanovic.
“That’s the first time in a long time,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “Our second unit has been great but the last couple of games: getting a rhythm, keeping it going and sustaining, it’s the first time in a long time they’ve lost a lead for us and didn’t build on it.”
Williams did what he did, but for one of the few times this season, the Raptors bench wasn’t who they’ve been. Not for a lack of effort, but rather a scarcely seen equation they couldn’t quite balance.