This whole NBA Finals was themed by legacies. But what makes it so different and does different mean worse?
Lou Williams doesn’t shoot the ball as much as he artfully leans into it. Every shot is a measured push, with a finesse and delicateness that makes him alien to other, more angst-ridden pushers of the ball like Ricky Rubio.
Williams used to be a bad shot maker. Now he’s just a shot maker. He gets to his spots at will, slithering into rhythm at half-pace and then feeling the ball towards the hoop. He’s stronger and faster, accelerating into the lane and finishing over length. He still looks like a small, thin person out there, but he plays in such a way that height and weight never really factor into the equation.
His mid-range game is unstoppable and his jump-shot is too versatile. He hits spot-up threes, threes fading back, threes fading to the left and to the right. If there’s a chance you’ll foul him, then you will.
When Williams hits the bench, the Clippers score at close to league-worst levels. With him on the floor, they’re the Cavs on offence. He’s become a capable, willing passer, and can run an offence now instead of just being an offence. He kept the Clippers afloat when Blake Griffin (and all the other known humans on the team) went down, and with Griffin gone, Williams has been the one constant between one version of a plucky over-achieving team and the new version of a plucky over-achieving team.
Only one line-up he’s played in all season has seen more than 57 minutes on the floor. He has been the Clippers’ protean elixir, fitting into wherever he’s needed and guaranteeing competence.
The transformation of Williams from unremarkable gunner into rounded, dynamic almost-All-Star, has been the best story on perhaps the NBA’s best story. The Clippers never should have had a chance to be good. Eighteen different players have started for this team – Wesley Johnson has started 30 games, CJ Williams 15, Jamil Wilson ten and Sindarius Thornwell eight.
Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari have each missed significant time. Griffin has been on the sidelines, and in Michigan. Patrick Beverley went down after 11 games.
But they keep on trucking, led by Williams’ brilliance and a whole lot of grit around him. Johnson’s career has found life as a homeless man’s Shawn Marion and minor gems have been unearthed like Tyrone Wallace. Rivers has been a real NBA player for a few years now, and this season has been his most real.
His father too, might rate this season as among his highest accomplishments. Doc Rivers is a strange NBA artefact, a subject for popular gleeful derision despite being a title-winning coach who makes the playoffs every season. 2017-18 has been a masterclass from Rivers, empowering everyone from Williams to the no-names, and creating an atmosphere where his highest paid player is content to ride the bench in a national TV game while his gentle fairy-tale behemoth back-up takes over.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the two best players in franchise history, brought so much angst with them, so much scowling. Without them, the team looks as though it’s breathing again, content and absent any baggage.
There is no more Paul meticulously, mercilessly grinding out every possession or Griffin barraging into the paint, fighting opponents and his own physical decline. Now there’s just Williams’s controlled free-styling, Teodosic throwing passes into the ghost world, and guys in uniforms hitting open threes. The future is capped, but the present is a small delight.