To the Faithful Departed: Lou Williams

To the Faithful Departed: Lou Williams

This week, I'll be saying a proper goodbye to some longtime Sixers
players that won't be suiting up in the Red, White and Blue next season.
On Tuesday, we remembered Elton Brand. Today: "Sweet" Lou Williams, let walk as a free agent, now signed with
the Atlanta Hawks.

Don't worry, I won't do you the
disservice of pretending I'm not thrilled that Lou Williams will not be
playing on the Sixers this season. With the obvious and sizeable
exception of Samuel Dalembert, there has been no Sixer of the
post-Iverson era that I've enjoyed rooting for less than LouWill. So
frustrating did I find his play that I started finding it difficult to
root for him to enjoy any level of success, for fear that every made
basket and good play would lead to more playing time, more
responsibility, or—gasp—a new contract. This off-season, I wanted him
gone at all costs.

Why my distaste for Sweet Lou? Well, it wasn't anything personal,
certainly. By all accounts he was a decent guy—his teammates and coaches
always seemed to like him, he never gave the fans any PR-related
reasons to turn on him (and he even served as something of a de facto
Fan Favorite for a little while), he never got in trouble or took games
off (even though I often wished he would) or anything like that. He had a
goofy rapping career and appeared in the Meek Mill "Ima Boss" video for
no apparent reason, but that's just what basketball players do—they
have goofy rapping careers and appear in Meek Mill videos. No real harm
there.

Nah, my venom towards Lou was strictly on-court-related. Even there
it wasn't entirely his fault—for all the countless times I cursed out
Lou for his play, I always held a percentage of my bile for the
management that put him in the position they did. He was, for the great
majority of his career on the Sixers, simply given too much
responsibility for the team's offense, a role which he was always more
than willing to take on (and then some), but which he rarely deserved.
Part of that was out of necessity, but part of it was also due to what
really seemed to be general coaching laziness—it was always easier to
live or die with Sweet Lou than it was to actually devise a
less-predictable (but still coherent) plan.

Lou was drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2005
draft, the last NBA class to allow preps-to-pros. An undersized scoring
dynamo Sweet Lou undoubtedly would've domianted in college, but instead,
he spent his first post-HS season essentially chained to the bench
behind fellow pint-sized scorer Allen Iverson. Given more PT the
following year after Iverson's trade, and evolving into the Sixers'
go-to sixth man in the first full season with the two Dre's running the
team, Williams quickly revealed himself as a poor man's AI—similarly
prolific and confident-to-a-fault on offense, but with a little less raw
skill, a little less of a feel for the moment, and a lot less of a
galvanizing personality.

Still, Sweet Lou was a valuable reserve on both the '07-'08 and
'08-'09 teams, a refreshing change of pace of the bench from the
stunning mediocrity of unavoidable starting two-guard Willie Green, and
an occasional dispenser of outrageous highlights. (For a little guy, the
dude had ups—remember that alley-oop he threw down
against the Jazz in '07, after blocking center Mehmet Okur at the other
end?) Promoted to the starting job in '09-'10 after the departure of
Andre Miller, Lou provided one of the few bright spots of a disastrous
27-55 season—he wasn't a true starting point guard by any means, but he
increased his scoring, assists and field goal percentage numbers, all
while cutting his turnover rate. You had to give it up for the guy,
really.

It wasn't until the next two seasons—the Doug Collins years—that I
really started to turn on Lou. Before then, I had certainly found him
frustrating in spots, but had to mostly give him a pass since the team
didn't really have other scoring options in the backcourt—Andre Miller
could score, but he was more of a pass-first guy, and Willie Green was
Willie Green, so to let Lou loose to do his thing basically made sense.
So a couple bad shots here and there were forgivable—at least he had the
confidence to take them, and he was better at making bad shots than
anyone else on the team anyway.

But with first-round pick Jrue Holiday coming on towards the end of
the '09-'10 season, and then Evan Turner drafted with the #2 pick in the
'10 off-season, we finally had a young, talented backcourt with
tremendous upside. Despite his improvement the season prior, as Sixers
fans we basically already knew what we had with Sweet Lou—he was a
talented scorer, effective off the bench as instant offense, but one
whose lack of a true position (the dreaded combo guard) and inability to
defend meant he could probably never be a starter on a contending team.
It was quickly obvious that Jrue and Evan were the future, with
Williams at best a stopgap until those guys could officially take the
reins.

And that would be fair enough. Except that in two seasons with Jrue
and Evan being championed as the backcourt of the future, Williams kept
on stopping that gap. It was obvious that Collins trusted Williams far
more than Holiday and Turner, and while those two guys both gave Collins
plenty of reasons to not trust them—Evan had a miserable rookie season
and an impossibly up-and-down sophomore campaign, while Holiday
occasionally drifted in and out of games over the two seasons—it wasn't
like Lou was winning a ton of games for the Liberty Ballers either,
shooting the team out of as many (if not more) games than his hot
scoring helped them be competitive in. Still, you generally knew what
you were gonna get from Lou, if not always the results, and that somehow
made him more trustworthy for Collins at the end of quarters and games
than Holiday or Turner.

Williams' reckless gunning and feast-or-famine streakiness was
excusable when the team had nothing to lose, but when it came at the
expense of valuable playing time and experience for two guys we hoped
could take us to the next level, it became downright infuriating to me.
Every missed shot, every poor decision on the fast break, every
defensive lapse stuck a pin under my fingernail, made me near-sick with
rage, not just that Williams was doing this and would keep doing this,
but that the team not only permitted it, it actively encouraged him. I
never understood why Collins gave him such free reign, and it makes just
as little sense to me writing this article today.

One thing Lou taught me over those two years was that while advanced
stats are great, they're still incomplete. By the standard of Player
Efficiency Rating (PER, the most high-profile stat of the advanced-stat
community), Lou was the best offensive player for the Sixers the last
two years, with last year's score of 20.2 putting him at a near-All-Star
Level. Lou tends to score high in PER because, despite his relatively
low field goal percentage (between 40-41% the last two seasons), he gets
to the line at a decent clip (nearly five times a game) and converts
well while there (low 80%s), while also turning the ball over with
exceptional rarity (barely one a game). He also gets love from the
Moneyball types for his embracing of the two-for-one at the end of
quarters, where a player opts for a rushed shot with about 30-35 seconds
left in the quarter to ensure that his team gets another possession
after the opponent uses their full 24-second clock, a smart
play-the-percentages move.

This is all well and good, but it wasn't the whole story with Lou's
offense. Lou gets marks for getting to the line at a good rate, but PER
doesn't take into account the number of times over a season he goes
careening into the lane with abandon trying to draw fouls and failing,
costing his team a chance at actually getting off a good shot. He
doesn't get called for actual TOs much, but that's largely because he
rarely passes—4.2 assists a game is his record, as a starter in '09-'10.
His turnovers basically come from his previously mentioned
ill-conceived foul-bait drives, and from bad shots late in the shot
clock, neither of which technically count as turnovers.

And the two-for-one, good lord. The first possession in a Lou-for-One
(as it came to be called) is usually a rushed three or some other kind
of off-balance, low-percentage jumper, which is largely excusable,
because it's gaining you another possession at the end of the quarter,
and a low-percentage extra possession is still better than no extra
possession at all. But what really killed me with Lou was that the
second possession was rarely any better—he'd dribble out the clock at
the top of the key, until taking a contested, often away-from-his body
jumper that looked really impressive the occasional times it went down,
but pretty goddamn stupid the majority of times that it didn't. The
Lou-for-One rarely seemed to add up to one decent possession, and it killed the team's momentum on any number of occasions.

The worst of it usually came in the fourth quarter. Marc Zumoff
would occasionally refer to these clutch stretches as "Lou Williams
Time," which was technically accurate in the sense that Lou Williams was
often prominently featured at such moments, but untrue in the
implication that he thrived under such circumstances. One good late-game
performance against the Lakers last year seemed to earn Sweet Lou an
endless amount of crunch-time credit, which by nearly all measures, he
squandered. Even the advanced stats are down on Lou's 4Q performance
last year—according to 82 Games,
he shot 35% in close late-game situations last year, and the disparity
between his offensive and defensive ratings were worth a difference of
-22 points over the course of 48 minutes. (He also accounted for a grand
total of four crunch-time assists last year.)

What's more, Lou always underperformed in the playoffs. Over 30
games across four post-seasons for the Sixers, Sweet Lou averaged a
meager 11.1 points and 2.8 assists a game on 36.7% shooting for Philly,
his PER only eclipsing 13.0 for a post-season in the '07-'08 playoffs.
My definitive post-season memory of Sweet Lou will always be Game One
against the Celtics last year, where his unspeakably poor showing in the
game's waning minutes cost the team a chance to steal the series opener
in Boston—a series of plays that included a sprawling fast-break layup
that never had a chance, an attempted drawn foul that resulted in a
turnover, and an ill-conceived long two early in the shot clock. It was
so Sweet Lou it made me want to puke.

It must be noted, however, that despite all of this—the ill-advised
ball dominance, the late game non-heroics, the awful post-season
showings—Lou Williams did hit the single most exciting shot of the last
six years of 76ers basketball. You probably know the one I'm talking
about—Game Four of the '11 playoffs against the newly devised and
much-hated Miami Heat superteam, with the Sixers down 3-0 and looking
for all the world like they were gonna be swept. Down one with about ten
seconds to go, Lou gets the ball at the top of the arc, a couple steps
behind the line, and quickly pulls up for a contested (of course)
three—and somehow, it goes down, and the Sixers go on to win 86-82,
forcing a Game Five in Miami. Lou walks away acting like he knew it was
going down the whole time, undoubtedly thinking to himself, Ima boss.

That was Lou WIlliams for you. He took way more crazy, ill-advised
shots than anyone else, sure—but he also made way more of them than
anyone else, shots that nobody else on the team would ever dare take,
and probably wisely so. He wasn't blessed with the greatest sense of
self-awareness, but he certainly never lacked confidence, and if you saw
him pull up for that deep top-of-the-arc three against the Heat, you
might not believe he was gonna make it, but you at least knew that he
believed he was gonna make it. On most nights it was enough to drive a
man to drink, but on that night (afternoon, technically), it resulted in
one of the most satisfying made baskets in my NBA-watching career, one
that proved the mighty Heat beatable and showed that LeBron didn't
always have all the answers just yet.

And if there's one thing that really must be said for Lou Williams,
it's this—he never did anything on the team that he wasn't asked to do.
I'll go to my grave wondering why he was asked to do some of
those things, but again, that's on the coaches—Lou was always willing to
comply with whatever role the team had for him. Instant offense off the
bench? Worked for him. Moved to the starting lineup? Cool. Bumped back
down again to make room for some rookie? If you said so. He never
complained about minutes, never sold out his teammates, never demanded
anything that wasn't already being given to him. For a guy whose
on-court game so often seemed modeled after AI's, he completely missed
the part about being a diva and/or problem child off the hardwood, which
was pretty commendable.

Truth told, I'm actually kinda pumped to watch Lou on Atlanta, where
he signed this off-season for a couple years. Partly it's due to my
being thrilled that he didn't sign some sort of five-year, $40-million,
crippling contract with the Sixers, and a little due to my excitement
over Hawks fans coming to the realization that PER isn't always all it's
cracked up to be, sure. But it's also because I look forward to being
able to watch Lou without seeing my team's future flash before my eyes,
to root on the guy who served the Sixers faithfully without having to
lose my mind every time he takes a contested three early in the shot
clock. Plus, he should have fun playing with Josh Smith and Al Horford,
and being in Atlanta will undoubtedly do wonders for Lou's goofy rap
career—within weeks, he'll probably be popping up in Waka Flocka Flame
videos. It's a good fit.

Farewell, Sweet Lou. To paraphrase Wes Mantooth, I might not be your
biggest fan as a player, but damn if I didn't always respect you. If
you were my guy, you probably wouldn't see a second of playing time in
the last five minutes of any important playoff game—unless we were down
three with a half-second left and needed some patented crazy three-point
shot to even have a chance, anyway. But I'd always pull you out of the
bear pen to safety, y'know?

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff looking for consistency vs. Rockies' potent offense

Phillies (15-26) vs. Rockies (28-17)
Coverage starts at  6:30 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies return home after a disastrous 2-7 road trip to host the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies in a four-game split.

Jerad Eickhoff gets the start for the Phils and is coming off of his best start in a month, but has a tough matchup vs. the Rockies’ potent offense.

Here are five things to know:

1. Like the old Eick
Eickhoff has been the model of consistency for Phillies pitchers since he joined the club in 2015, with 31 quality starts (six or more innings with no more than three earned runs) in 49 career games. But Eickhoff struggled recently, before regaining his form in his last start at Texas.

In his three prior starts — vs. the Dodgers, Cubs and Mariners — Eickhoff averaged just 4.2 innings per start as his ERA ballooned to 4.76. But the righty seemed to regain his form vs. the Rangers in his last start, a six-inning, two-earned-run outing.

Building off of that step will be a tall task, though against an explosive Rockies lineup.

2. Better hitters than Rocky
The hard-hitting Rockies are coming to town.

Colorado boasts one of the league’s best offenses, ranking fourth in runs scored, 10th in home runs and fifth in extra-base hits. Take the Rockies out of the thin air at Coors Field, and the numbers tell a different story, though. On the road, Colorado drops to 12th in runs, 14th in homers and 10th in extra-base hits. Still solid numbers, but nothing that jumps off the page at you. The Phillies (as bad as they are on the road) have more extra-base hits.

The Rockies are led by Mark Reynolds (yes, that Mark Reynolds), with 12 homers and 39 RBI. Shockingly, Reynolds — who has set the all-time single-season strikeout record in a season — is leading the team with a .323 batting average. 

Just about the only thing you don’t have to worry about with the Rockies’ offense is their speed. The Rockies rank dead last in MLB with just 11 steals on the year. 

3. Not the same old Rockies
Despite the dip in numbers on the road, the Rockies are still 15-7 on the road this season, the second-best mark in MLB, behind only the Astros.

What’s different about this year’s team, unlike years past, is the pitching. This year, they’re a middling staff, which is actually a huge improvement for the club. Last season, Rockies pitchers ranked in the bottom five in MLB in almost all categories: 27th in ERA (4.91), 28th in runs allowed (860) and 28th in opponent batting average (.274), just to name a few.

This year, the Rockies have knocked off nearly half a run per game (4.48 ERA) and rank 13th in the entire league with a .250 opponent batting average. With an offense like theirs, a middling pitching staff could be all the Rockies need to earn a postseason bid.

4. Oh, 'Dubel
What’s happened to Odubel Herrera?

After an All-Star 2016 season, Herrera has been one of the Phillies’ biggest disappointments in 2017. Batting just .236 on the year, Herrera is on pace to easily set a career high in strikeouts (168) and career lows in runs (60) and extra-base hits (39). Not a good look for Herrera after signing a five-year deal to be a building block of the future in the offseason. However, there is hope: In his career, Herrera has increased his batting average, runs scored and OPS each month as the season has gone along. 

5. This and that
•Jeff Hoffman will make a spot start for the Rockies on Monday. He’s the Rockies' third-ranked prospect by Baseball America and has a 4.97 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 19 walks in 10 career MLB games. Batters are hitting .282 off him this season.

•Eickhoff’s numbers have risen with Cameron Rupp behind the plate. With Rupp catching, Eickhoff has a 3.53 ERA as opposed to a 3.13 ERA with Carlos Ruiz catching.

•After a red-hot start to the month, Aaron Altherr has cooled off over the last week, hitting just .231 with more strikeouts (five) than RBI (four). 

NBA Playoffs: Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating 3 lifts Celtics past Cavaliers in Game 3

NBA Playoffs: Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating 3 lifts Celtics past Cavaliers in Game 3

BOX SCORE

CLEVELAND -- Leprechauns are imaginary. Celtic pride is very real.

Avery Bradley's 3-pointer danced on the rim and dropped with less than a second left and Boston, blown out in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals and playing without star Isaiah Thomas, stunned the Cleveland Cavaliers 111-108 on Sunday night in Game 3 to end the champions' 13-game postseason winning streak.

Bradley's shot from the left wing -- off a play designed by coach Brad Stevens -- bounced on the rim four times before going down. It capped a furious, focused comeback by the Celtics, who trailed by 21 in the third quarter before rallying to tighten up a series that appeared to be over.

"Wide-open look," Bradley said. "Al (Horford) did a great job of getting me open and Marcus (Smart) made a great pass and I was able to knock down the shot."

Smart, who started in place of Thomas, made seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points, and Bradley had 20 for the Celtics, who were given little chance after losing by 44 in Game 2 and then losing Thomas for the rest of the postseason because of a hip injury.

"Everybody had to step up their game tonight especially with one of our brothers down," Smart said. "Our love and support goes out to Isaiah. We wish he could be here but we understand. We just kept fighting. Everybody did their part."

Kyrie Irving scored 29 points, and Kevin Love had 28 for Cleveland. The Cavaliers dropped to 10-1 in the postseason with their first loss since Game 4 of last year's Finals.

Game 4 is Tuesday night in Cleveland.

LeBron James had one of the worst games of his postseason career, finishing with 11 points and six turnovers.

"I didn't have it," said James. "You let a team like that grab momentum you almost knew a shot like that was going in."

Still, the Cavs were in control leading 77-56 in the third quarter after making 14 3-pointers in the first half. But Cleveland got complacent, Smart got hot and the Celtics, who arrived at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday morning for their shootaround without Thomas and looking somewhat defeated, never gave up.

"We decided were going to go out and play hard, swinging." Bradley said. "We never counted ourselves out."

The Celtics caught the Cavs at 95-all on Smart's 3-pointer and then matched the James and Co. basket for basket in the final minutes in one of the most entertaining games of what has been a mostly boring postseason.

Boston's Jonas Jerebko's baseline jumper put the Celtics ahead 108-106 with 30 seconds left before Irving scored on a drive to tie it with 10.7 seconds left.

Following a timeout, the Celtics perfectly executed a play drawn up by Stevens and worked the ball to Bradley, who found himself open and then calmly knocked down a shot that goes straight into Celtics lore.

For Cleveland, the loss was a wake-up call on their march toward a possible third straight Finals and a seemingly inevitable rematch with Golden State. The Cavs had been playing a glorified game of H.O.R.S.E. with the Warriors, who are undefeated and can complete a sweep of San Antonio on Monday night.

The Cavs hadn't lost since Game 4 of last year's Finals, and they came in tied with the 1988-89 Los Angeles "Showtime" Lakers for the longest winning streak in postseason history.

With Thomas back home, the Celtics could be forgiven for feeling down after Thomas, their inspirational leader was shut down with a hip injury he first sustained in March.

However, Stevens liked his team's energy leading up to tipoff and felt confident they would play hard.

"Our guys are itching to play," he said. "Obviously, we're here for a reason, and we've got tough-minded, competitive guys who have largely been guys that have had to really earn their way up in this league."

They earned their way back into the series.

Tip-ins
Celtics: Stevens said Thomas will visit hip specialists over the next few days and there's a chance the 28-year-old will need surgery. ... Stevens didn't review much of the Game 2 tape, but there's a mental image in his head of the Cavs making tough shot after tough shot that he can't shake. "As good as they are and they are tremendous, that might have been the best game I've ever seen a team play against us," he said. Does that mean college too? "Yeah, I think they would have beaten all those teams, too," he said, drawing laughter. ...

Cavaliers: James came in needing 73 points to pass Michael Jordan as the top scorer in postseason history. ... Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was an assistant in Boston and said his team reminds him of those Celtics teams with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. "That was a tight group," he said. "They did everything together, dinners and everything." ... Cleveland is 14-0 when leading a series 2-0. ... Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, and fellow rookie Jabrill Peppers took a few shots on the floor before teams came out for warmups.