Game Notes: Clippers at Celtics
Mo Williams skips his regular nap.
by Jay King / @CelticsTown
A time existed – only a year ago – when Mo Williams played for the Eastern Conference’s winningest regular-season team, and that team was favored to win a championship.
That time occurred before LeBron James Decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before Williams, lost without his friend and most talented teammate, contemplated retirement. Before the Cavaliers became a nation’s laughingstock. Before Williams was traded to Los Angeles, where he took Baron Davis’ spot throwing lobs to Blake Griffin (an art Williams still hasn’t mastered, if an attempted alley oop that landed in the third row is any indication). Before all that, the Boston Celtics set everything into motion by improbably dusting Williams, LeBron and their Cleveland Cavaliers out of the 2010 NBA Playoffs.
Williams still holds on to memories of that series, painful memories of a better year. He loved battling Boston then, and he loves it now. Even on his new team, the Clippers, with a record well below .500 and no chance of making the Playoffs, Williams anxiously awaited his chance to win at the TD Garden.
“I didn’t even take a nap today,” he said, after scoring 28 points and leading the Clippers to a 108-103 victory. “I was ready to play.”
So was his teammate DeAndre Jordan. Jordan morphed into Blake Griffin 2.0 in the first half, dunking the ball approximately 2,383,392 times. To call the Celtics’ defensive rotations bad would be to assume they actually rotated at all, though Boston’s lack of tenacity should not take anything away from Jordan.
“DeAndre Jordan, I love,” said Doc Rivers. “He’s a defensive player who scored 21 points tonight.”
Maybe the Celtics should have fouled Jordan, who shoots free throws like a drunken Shaq, more often. Maybe they should have sent Jordan to the line, rather than surrender dunk… after dunk… after dunk. Maybe they should have sent a message by not allowing him such easy looks. But injuries had left the Celtics with precious few big men, and Doc Rivers warned the healthy ones not to get themselves in foul trouble.
Jordan even made two clutch free throws late in the game, which is only surprising to anyone who has ever seen Jordan shoot free throws. His Andris Biedrins-esque release causes young children to cry, healthy men to become sick, and women with 20/20 vision to turn blind. Yet Jordan toed the line, with 15 seconds remaining in the game. His team’s lead, once 23 points, had been cut to four. And Jordan drained them both.
Has he ever hit more important free throws?
“No, never, my entire life.”
“I’ve played against [Jordan],” explained Williams, “and our main thing was, ‘foul him, foul him!’ But I told him when he was walking to the line, ‘I’ve got all the confidence in the world that you’re going to make these two shots.’”
“Slow it down, make sure you don’t rush your shot,” Williams told Jordan. “Make sure you keep it on your fingertips, not in the palm of your hand. And, you know what? After everything I’ve said, don’t think about it.”
Don’t think about it. Easy for Williams, the career 86.4 percent free-throw shooter, to say. Not so easy for Jordan, the career 40.3 percent free-throw shooter, to do. Yet it was fitting that Jordan ended Boston’s hopes; from the opening tip, Jordan brought an energy Boston did not match. He does not always bring that type of energy – just Monday, he played 17 scoreless minutes against the Charlotte Bobcats. But when he does, Jordan impacts his entire team, and reminds folks that Blake Griffin isn’t the only young Clippers big man with space-rocket athleticism and a penchant for loud dunks.
“That’s my project,” Williams said of Jordan. “I have to make sure he’s involved in the game, because he helps us so much when he’s involved in the game. When he’s not, it shows.”
It shows, like the Celtics initial lack of effort showed. Allowing the Clippers to shoot 67.6 percent in the first half, I imagine, is not what Doc Rivers hoped. Allowing the Clippers to build an 18-point halftime lead (which they would soon build to 23), I bet, was not the game plan. Letting Williams shoot open jumpers and Jordan dunk time after time, I suspect, was not what the Celtics had in mind.
After the game, reporters asked whether the Celtics could attribute their porous defense to new players learning to play a new system. The theory made sense, because the Celtics dressed only 10 players – one of them was a rookie (Avery Bradley), and five of them had not been on the team prior to the trade deadline. The theory made sense, that is, except Boston’s starters – most of whom have been in Boston quite awhile – were the ones surrendering all the easy points.
“[The subs] held their ground,” said Rivers. “The problem was, it was a 20-point ground.”
The Celtics ultimately came almost all the way back, as their amped-up defense turned into easy buckets of their own. Ray Allen got free for a three-pointer in transition. Rondo took a layup to the reverse side of the backboard, underneath the outstretched arms of Griffin. The TD Garden crowd, antsy during the ugly first half, finally started to breathe and the Celtics kept getting stops.
Raise your hand if you ever expected Rajon Rondo and Carlos Arroyo to share a backcourt this season. *Nobody raises his hand, except one liar.* But a small lineup led Boston’s surge, with Arroyo manning the shooting guard position and Jeff Green playing power forward. Arroyo, to quote Rivers, “was phenomenal” in his Boston debut. Sure, he only scored four points to go with just two assists. True, he didn’t make any highlight-reel plays. Yet he facilitated the offense, in ways the Celtics second unit is unaccustomed to being led. He pushed the ball in transition, and found the open man at the right time. At one point he even called one of Boston’s plays that the Celtics had never taught him, causing Rivers to think, “Man, this guy – he’s pretty good.”
Watching Arroyo run Boston’s offense with such knowledge, one couldn’t help but wonder if leaving Miami – where Arroyo’s role (when he wasn’t receiving DNP-CDs) was to dribble the ball upcourt, pass to an infinitely more-talented teammate, and spot up in the corner – had freed his inner playmaker.
But the Celtics could not entirely erase the deficit.
“This team, that’s a championship team. I expected that [comeback],” said Williams. “I expected it to come down to some free throws, just how it happened.”
The future will come, and for the Los Angeles Clippers that makes a great promise. Williams sees in Griffin many of the same traits that made LeBron James two-time MVP – his attitude, work ethic, attention to detail and approach to the game, not to mention a collection of fast-twitch muscles not normally found in homo sapiens. Surrounded by Williams, Jordan and Eric Gordon, the NBA world expects Griffin to turn the Clippers’ franchise around – the NBA world expects Griffin to raise the Clippers to a better place, a place filled with Playoff trips and respectability rather than lottery balls and mockery.
The assurance of tomorrow doesn’t mean Williams is ready to hit the fast-forward button. Instead, he concentrates on what he can control, making shots and mentoring his young teammates. In the back of his mind, Williams remembers what it was like when the Cavaliers sat near the top of the NBA world.
“It’s loud in here,” he described, when asked if visiting the TD Garden brought back memories. “A lot of energy and electricity, this building gives. When they’re screaming like that, at the free-throw line during the game, it fuels me. I love it. I love playing on the road. All that adversity, just you and your team – nothing like it. Nothing better.”
The opportunity to play meaningful games doesn’t come as often as it did last year, but when it does Williams savors it. Even if he loses out on a little bit of sleep.