Over the last 20 years, five players have scored at least 50 points against the Pacers: Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, Chris Webber, and Mo Williams.
With all due respect to Williams, who is probably best remembered for his first stint with the Cavs, when he earned his lone All-Star appearance before later finishing his career as a journeyman back-up, his name isn’t exactly one you would expect to find on such an illustrious list. For point of reference, when Lillard devoured his 50-burger against the Pacers earlier this season, he was midway through a torrid, six-game stretch in which he averaged (AVERAGED!) 48.8 points per game. In fact, if you google the 29-year-old Portland star’s name, one of the first questions that comes up is, “How many 50-point games has Damian Lillard had?” Williams, by comparison, was averaging 12 points and hadn’t scored over 30 in almost three years when he posted his career-best performance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in his twelfth and penultimate season.
And, here’s the thing: The freshly hired coach of Alabama State racked up his slew of buckets while converting only one shot inside the restricted area. Yep, of his 19 made field goals, 18 were jump shots. Granted, Klay Thompson scored 60 points on only 11 dribbles in three quarters against the Pacers, but he’s also a boss-level cheat-code with a well-established reputation for going nuclear as one of the league’s best shooters. This was Mo Williams, a veteran role player on a 16-win Timberwolves team that desperately wanted for space (ranking dead-last in 3-point attempts and 25th in 3-point field-goal percentage), shooting an other-worldly 15-for-23 (65 percent) on pull-up twos and threes.
Sorry, but the degree of randomness in that rarefied air calls for a deep dive. Let’s rewind the tape and breakdown Williams’ made jump-shots from that night by category to determine how exactly he managed to join the 50-point club while beating the Pacers 110-101 in Indiana.
The PUJITs (Pull-up Jump Shots in Transition) and deep drops
In January of 2015, the RePacement Pacers (so-called because of the rash of bumps and bruises that ravaged the team in the aftermath of Paul George’s gruesome leg injury) were in the throes of the winter blahs. George Hill was out with a groin strain. David West, who was reportedly being dangled for a first-round pick, looked at times like he had zero effs left to give, and the modern NBA was continuing to gain on Roy Hibbert. With C.J. Watson starting at the point of attack in the absence of Hill’s wingspan, the stage was set for a microwave scorer to catch fire knocking down the shots that Indiana’s funneling scheme was all too willing to surrender, thus laying the groundwork for a seven-game losing streak in which the Pacers surrendered multiple individual scoring outings of 35 points or more in a matter of weeks.
Early and often, Williams pulled out the blueprint for how to crack the code of the Pacers’ once impenetrable defense: Play fast, and take advantage of quick, open shots with the big either lagging behind or dropping below, and very rarely at, the level of the screen.
In one particularly egregious example, which occurred shortly after Hibbert was automatically ejected with a Flagrant 2 foul, the 6-foot-1 guard wrapped both skills into one, dribbling off a pick in semi-transition and pulling the trigger from deep before David West and Lavoy Allen even knew what hit them (or, more importantly, who they were guarding).
At this point, Williams was 12-of-26 from the field; and yet, he still had ample cushion to waltz into a three as if he were going for a leisurely stroll in the park.
At some point midway through the third quarter it was almost as if there was a bounty out on Roy Hibbert with side-to-side action. Whether converting post-ups into elbow-get opportunities or creating space with contact out of dribble hand-offs, the object was to force the lumbering big man to defend laterally while indulging in the fact that he wasn’t likely to come out of the paint to protect against the shot.
All of which begs the question as to why the Pacers didn’t look at having C.J. Watson go under in these situations. Unlike with normal ball-screens, where ducking under essentially dares the ball-handler to shoot, going under on hand-offs actually makes shooting more difficult because it forces the player receiving the ball to have to stop on a dime behind the play while moving from left-to-right or right-to-left.
Take this possession, for example. If Watson had ducked under, then he either would’ve been able to beat Williams to his spot on the other side of the screen, or the white hot scorer would’ve been forced to lock and load from long-two territory in the blink of an eye without putting the ball on the floor.
At any rate, even at the risk of a re-screen, living with the results of those outcomes arguably would’ve been preferable to allowing him to get progressively more and more comfortable in the defense’s soft spots.
The hedges and non-traps
Back then, it was part and parcel to Indiana’s defensive scheme for the four-man to hedge on pick-and-rolls and attempt to divert the ball-handler away from the basket. This was especially the case with Luis Scola, who was slightly more nimble than David West. As you may recall, this was the burn-me-once-shame-on-you, burn-me-twice-shame-on-me coverage that got the Pacers into trouble during their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks in 2014, when Mike Scott went 5-for-5 from three in the second quarter of Game 5.
In this case, however, rather than picking on Scola’s ability to recover with high hands, Williams simply waited for him to run away after being slightly delayed and then went to work dispatching with Donald Sloan.
Eventually, with seconds left to play in the third quarter (and Williams up to 26 points on 20 shots), the Pacers decided it was time to start mixing in some possessions with two defenders on the ball. The only problem was, while they weren’t exactly dropped back and waiting for the action to come to them, they also weren’t actively swarming the ball and forcing him to pick up his dribble. Instead, with Williams testing West’s ability to backpedal faster than he could attack, the coverage essentially became like a lopsided dash to whatever spot on the floor Williams wanted to get to.
Admittedly, in the second instance, you have to tip your hat to him for making a shot while practically falling out of bounds, but that also came after he was given the entire game to grow in confidence and may not have occurred if they had actually forced someone else to beat them with greater urgency.
Per Synergy, Williams inexplicably only saw a hard trap on one possession in this game, which no doubt contributed to why he was able to go off for 21 points in the fourth quarter, including shooting 4-of-7 from three while making seven trips to the line.
The right places at the right times
You know things are going your way when you can casually step into a three from 29 feet off an offensive rebound.
It also doesn’t hurt when you can spring yourself free by relocating after driving.
The ‘you gotta be joking’
In case it wasn’t already evident that Bankers Life Fieldhouse was Mo Williams’ world and the Pacers were just living in it, here is the exact moment when the rim enlarged to be the size of the ocean: Trying desperately to draw contact against Rodney Stuckey for a three-shot foul, the then 32-year-old guard got nothing but net while drilling his third of four made threes in the final frame (say it with me, TRAP HIM), despite the fact that he was floating to his left with his limbs sprawled out like a starfish.
Yep, that happened. Of course, if shots like that are going to go down, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he also hit a three in motion while sprinting to the corner and managed to essentially use Solomon Hill like a screen to pivot into a baseline jumper.
Why not, right?
Fueled by incredible shot-making, January 13 seemed almost predestined in many ways to be Mo Williams’ night; however, from missing key pieces to being slow to match-up and reluctant to trap, the Pacers certainly had a hand in making it extra special.