ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Clippers traded Lou Williams to the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks at the March trade deadline.
Going from a championship contender to a team that fired its coach earlier in the month was not what Williams wanted, even if it was a trade to his hometown and the team he spent two seasons with earlier in his career.
He contemplated retirement. When he joined the Hawks in Phoenix in late March, he reconsidered.
“I was just accepted. I was wanted,” Williams said. “I didn’t get the feeling that this was a trade that they just threw together for money reasons or whatever. I felt like I was going to be a part of the success here, and when I met with the guys in Phoenix, they were really warm to me and really appreciated me being there as their teammate, so that feels good. That feels good. A warm welcome anywhere feels good, going into a situation you’re not very familiar with.
“So I think that was one of the things I wanted to give myself an opportunity to continue on my career and give these guys an opportunity to be teammates and try to do something special together.”
The Hawks are two wins from doing something special — reaching the NBA Finals as the No. 5 seed — and Williams is a major reason for Atlanta’s 110-88 victory over Milwaukee in Game 4 that tied the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2.
With starting point guard Trae Young sidelined due to a bone bruise in his right foot, Williams got the start and scored a team-high 21 points and added eight assists, five rebounds and one steal.
Asked what he will remember about Game 4, Williams said, “That I played well and we won. That’s it really. In situations like that, from a fan’s perspective, I’m sure everybody is like, ‘Oh hell, Trae is out,’ and so it kind of puts me in a position that I have to play well in order for everybody not to boo me. You know what I mean?”
Williams scored seven points in the first 5:20 of this game, and his 3-pointer gave Atlanta an early 15-5 lead. His playmaking in place of Young set the tone. The Hawks finished with 26 assists on 43 made shots. The ball moved and everyone on the court was involved offensively.
The Hawks beat the Bucks earlier this season without Young, and even in the conference finals, they maintained confidence when it seemed like it could be deflating to play without the team’s young star.
“We’re pros, too,” Williams countered. “We know how to play basketball as well. I think that’s the difference between the guys in the locker room and everybody else. When Trae goes down, we still feel like we’re confident in our abilities as players as well.
“Obviously Trae is a major part of what we do, but we feel really good about the things that we bring to the table, and sometimes you’ve got to band together and create success, and I think tonight was one of those nights where everybody played well, everybody chipped in a little more than usual, including myself, and we bridged that gap that Trae brings.”
Hawks coach Nate McMillan told Williams he would start while Williams was on the training table about an hour before the game.
“Nate walked up, said, ‘Trae is going to be out, so I’m going to start you.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he walked off. That was the conversation,” Williams said. “It’s not like a ‘Remember the Titans’ thing that happens in the locker room. I promise you it don’t. That was it … and we got ready for the game.”
Then Williams, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, delivered the performance that prevented the Bucks from taking a 3-1 series lead.
“One thing that’s been steady since I’ve been here, this team has always been confident in their abilities, and that’s showed throughout the playoffs,” Williams said. “We’re enjoying the ride. We feel like we deserve to be here. We’ve earned the right to be here, and at the same time we’re enjoying it. Did I look ahead and say we can be a championship contender day one? Probably not. But we’re two wins away like everybody else, and we feel good about it.”
Lou Williams had 21 points in Game 4 after scoring 13 combined in Games 1-3.
McMillan said he talked with Williams after the trade which sent Rajon Rondo from the Hawks to the Clippers.
“I talked to him about the role that Rondo was playing when he came here, and that was a role of mentoring Trae,” McMillan said. “He understood that role. He accepted that role. He knew that Trae is the future of this organization. He’s coming in to back him up. And he’s done a great job of mentoring Trae, talking about different situations, how to manage a game, different things that he can do. His minutes were really cut coming here. He was a 20-plus minute guy, and he only has about 15 — 10 to 15 minutes behind Trae.
“He really sacrificed that role to help this team, and he’s done a great job for us.”
Williams walked into his postgame press conference with a big, floppy bucket hat and 2019 bottle of red wine from Caymus Vineyards.
“I’m not even going to pretend I know what’s going on,” Williams said of the wine.
Hopefully he enjoyed it, because after Tuesday’s game, he deserved it.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lou Williams shines for Hawks in place of injured Trae Young