On Pro Basketball
Lou Williams, who has the unusual role of leading the Clippers in scoring while coming off the bench, does not run around the court so much as flutter across it. At 6 feet 1 inch and 175 pounds, he has embraced his identity as a butterfly among a herd of cattle.
But at this stage of his career, Williams wants to feel as light and nimble as possible — so he essentially starves himself on game days. After a big breakfast, he refuses to eat again until well after the game itself, often going nearly 12 hours between meals.
It is one of several habits that Williams, 32, has developed over the years, and one that clearly works for him. It is also the opposite of how most elite athletes prepare for games. But Williams is different: He wants to take the court with an appetite.
“That’s crazy,” Landry Shamet, the first-year Clippers guard, said. “I’d weigh about 115 pounds if I did that.”
The Clippers, as they often have this season, turned to Williams on Monday night for an extraordinary performance — this time against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. In the Clippers’ 135-131 win, Williams collected 36 points and 11 assists to help erase a 31-point deficit.
Shamet sealed the biggest comeback in N.B.A. playoff history with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 16.5 seconds left, and the Clippers evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
“I’m one of those guys who can get hot,” said Williams, who shot 13 of 22 from the field, “and I just got lost in the moment.”
The Clippers, who have thrived behind Williams in the wake of a midseason deal that sent Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers, will need all of him again — all his scoring, all his savvy, all his unusual rituals — when the Warriors come to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Thursday.
Make no mistake, the Clippers have their share of scrappy, no-nonsense guys. Patrick Beverley, who has spent the series covering the Warriors’ Kevin Durant like aluminum foil, would trash talk a telephone pole.
Williams, on the other hand, carries himself with a brand of quiet composure that has a power all its own.
“He goes about his business,” said Sam Cassell, an assistant coach for the Clippers. “He’s not overwhelmingly faster than people. He’s not bigger than people. But he understands what he can do on the basketball court, and he does it well.”
The Warriors’ Klay Thompson recently came across a package of highlight clips from Williams’s days as a star guard at South Gwinnett High School outside of Atlanta. What stood out to Thompson was how little Williams had changed.
“He played the exact same way,” Thompson said in an interview before the start of the series. “It was incredible: same step-back jumper, same hesitations, same floaters.”
Williams has stuck with the same general blueprint while refining his skills — slicker, craftier, jazzier. He has also become more resilient. There was a time, he said, when he thought his career might be finished. In 2013, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for the Atlanta Hawks. In his comeback, he turned to Kenny Atkinson, who was then one of the team’s assistants, to help reassemble his game.
Atkinson, now the head coach of the Nets, imbued Williams with the importance of routine.
“Kenny is one of my all-time favorite people in the world,” Williams said. “I give him a lot of credit for getting me back on my feet when I was down and out.”
By 2015, Williams was the N.B.A.’s sixth man of the year with the Toronto Raptors. But he has never been better, more efficient or more dynamic than he has been in his last two seasons with the Clippers, all at an age — early 30s — when most players see their production begin to erode.
Instead, Williams, who has scored more points off the bench than any other player in league history, has only improved. This season, he averaged 20 points and 5.4 assists in just 26.6 minutes a game. Williams also had the ball in his hands more than ever, with the Clippers running 32.4 percent of their plays through him whenever he was on the court, according to usage-rate statistics compiled by Basketball Reference.
Coming off the bench was never something that he necessarily wanted to do, but Williams has no doubt that the role has helped preserve his career because it has kept his minutes down. He has averaged 24.6 minutes a game over his 14-year career. (LeBron James, by comparison, has averaged 38.6 minutes.)
“It’s given me an opportunity to stretch my career out, and I think I’m in my prime right now, man,” Williams said. “I’m just rolling.”
At the same time, Williams has his quirky customs, which help give him a sense of stability, starting with his game-day breakfast: hash browns, egg whites, French toast and chicken sausage along with a fruit smoothie that he sweetens with honey. He loads up because he knows he won’t eat again for a while.
“I guess my body’s gotten used to it,” Williams said, who will just do the smoothie if the Clippers have an early tipoff.
He also has the peculiar habit of arriving at the arena on the late side, about 90 minutes before the start of the game.
“I don’t like idle time,” he said.
Once there, though, Williams has an active schedule: 15 minutes in the training room getting stretched out, 10 minutes in the weight room doing exercises with a stretch band and a medicine ball, then about 17 minutes on the court making 150 field goals as Cassell feeds him passes.
Before a recent home game ahead of the playoffs, Williams made nearly 80 percent of his attempts, including two skyscraping moonshots from the baseline, which is a shot that he has developed in case a 7-footer lunges at him with his arms extended. Williams says he only practices shots that he will attempt in games, however improbable or acrobatic.
“I catch myself at least two or three times a game just putting my hands up, like, ‘How did that even happen?’” Shamet said.
Williams wraps up his on-court work with 20 free throws and 10 court-width sprints, then retreats to the locker room to put on his ankle braces and check his phone. “Just to make sure there’s no family emergencies or anything like that,” he said.
With 20 minutes on the clock, the Clippers have their team meeting. Before they head to the court, Williams gathers his teammates around him for one final huddle — or rather, they gather around him, as if he has some sort of gravitational pull.
Once the game begins, Williams takes a seat on the bench — which is the only time he stops moving. But he is watching his potential defenders and studying the flow, readying himself for the moment when he sheds his warm-ups late in the first quarter.
If Cassell can pinpoint one flaw, it might be that Williams commits too many turnovers. He is an excellent passer, especially coming off ball screens — Shamet considers him one of the most underrated passers in the league — but he sometimes tries to do too much, Cassell said. So Cassell will remind Williams to do what he does best: Shoot the ball.
It is what everyone wants to see from Williams, who is regarded around the league as a player whom other players love to watch.
“It means a lot coming from my peers,” Williams said. “I think as competitors, that’s why we get into this, to gain respect from the guys who have played the game, and you walk away and they say, ‘He was a tough cover — that dude was nice.’”
All while being fueled with a hunger of his own creation.
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