Lou Williams sparks belief for Hawks and a hungry city

Lou Williams lines up a shot in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia Wednesday.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Lou Williams lines up a shot in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia Wednesday.

As a citizen of Atlanta as well as a hired gun for its NBA team, Lou Williams knows too well that his city routinely falls on the wrong side of great, stirring games like the one Wednesday night.

But, lo, this time it was the Hawks mounting the improbable comeback, rallying from as much as 26 down well into the third quarter, on the road, to ultimately rip out the heart of the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, 109-106. And it was Williams, from South Gwinnett High, coming off the bench, sparks shooting from his fingertips in the second half, who set it all in motion.

“I’ve been part of some letdowns as a fan. And personally, professionally, I’ve been part of a few,” said Williams, the consummate sixth man who began his second term with the Hawks in March following a trade from the L.A. Clippers.

“Hopefully we don’t become part of history on that (usual) end of it. Hopefully we do something that’s huge, that a lot of people didn’t expect us to and we continue to roll,” he said, sounding the hopes of all his hometown. The stunning comeback put the Hawks up 3-2 in the series and presented them the chance to wrap it up at home Friday night and advance to the Eastern Conference final.

As Hawks coach Nate McMillan desperately searched for some lineup combination that could breathe life into the Hawks on Wednesday, it was Williams who entered the game with 4:56 left in the third quarter and answered the call. Within the first 81 seconds, he had a little step-back 2-pointer and fed Clint Capela for a dunk.

Looked like the good Lou just might have made the trip to Philly. Better than anyone else can, Williams describes that moment when he knows he is about to flip the switch on a game, something he’s done quite often in 16 professional seasons.

“Give me an inch, I try to take a foot. Give me a foot, I try to take a mile. And before you know it the basket looks like the ocean to me, and I start playing with a lot of confidence, and everybody else starts playing with it. It just starts clicking,” he said.

“I’ve done it so many times,” he continued. “It’s just a zone that you’re in. Everything is blacked out. You don’t hear the crowd. Sometimes you don’t even see the defender in front of you, you’re just zoned out. Two or three shots in, all right, well, here we go again.”

In a 10-minute stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters, Williams put up 15 points and three assists. It had the effect of a defibrillator on a quivering heart. Down 21 when Williams entered the game, the Hawks outscored Philly 55-31 the rest of the way.

Williams’ mentality was perfectly suited to this moment. Just listen to his explanation as to how turnarounds like Wednesday happen: “Everybody has to believe in their abilities and haul their weight and go out on the floor and try to make a positive impact. Sometimes those positive impacts become huge impacts. You chip away and chip away and before you know it, you got a game.”

Certainly there were other factors to the comeback: Trae Young’s flawless execution in the final minutes; the Hawks stiffening defense; Philadelphia’s sudden loss of nerve and even the gift of a lucky banked 3-pointer by John Collins. Still, most agreed it was Williams who injected the Hawks with the first dose of belief.

“It’s somewhat of a different guy each night,” McMillan said postgame. “Tonight, we needed someone to get hot, and this is something (Williams) has been doing for a long time. We certainly needed his offense tonight.”

Said Young, “Lou started it off. Lou started off that fourth quarter aggressive, attacking, scoring, and it really opened up everything else for us. Without his scoring and his impact on tonight’s game, who knows if we come back in the game?”

Initially after the trade that brought him to the Hawks, Williams had to weigh if he really wanted to play on with this young, unproven team. But the Hawks started winning, the move back home has been like a shot of tonic and the youth thing seems to really be working right now. This team doesn’t know it’s not supposed to win games like Wednesday’s.

“We’re a really confident group of guys and we’re kind of naïve to the process of winning basketball games,” Williams said. “I don’t think we ever lack confidence. I think no matter what, we always feel we have an opportunity to go out and give ourselves a chance to win a basketball game. And tonight showed that.”

“You couldn’t tell from the body language that we were down big throughout the majority of this game,” he said. “Yeah, we feel like we can win games and it is expected.”

That isn’t always the prevailing postgame attitude around Atlanta teams. But Williams is most willing to try to rewrite that tired script.

“I’m just happy to see the support,” he said. “The city is behind us. We’re super excited to get back home for Game 6 and play in front of this home crowd. They’ve been showing up, extremely supportive of these guys. We’re just happy to be part of it.”