In the age of empty arenas and Zoom press conferences, working a beat during the 2020-21 NBA season has lacked its usual spontaneity.
But Billy Donovan and Patrick Williams gave Bulls reporters something unexpected after the team’s 130-127 loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon.
“You see why I was riled up in that timeout?” Donovan could be heard saying to Williams off screen as he exited the video recording area -- before their audio quickly flicked to mute. “I wanted you to fight him!”
Naturally, the first question posed to Williams as he stepped to the virtual podium was simple: Who?
“Kawhi,” Williams said with a laugh. “During the third quarter, Kawhi.”
Why? Leonard certifiably exploded out of the break, scoring 21 points on 7-for-8 shooting (5-for-5 from 3-point range) in the third. At halftime, the Clippers trailed 59-52. Entering the fourth, the game was knotted 94-94.
“They kinda ran pretty much the same play three, four times in a row and he just came off and hit three, four 3s in a row that got him going,” Williams said. “I was there. I was contesting it. I think I might have even tipped one and it still went in. He (Donovan) called a timeout and it was kind of just ‘figure it out.’
“It wasn't a game plan to kinda stop that. I mean, great players, you've just gotta find a way. And that's kinda what he wanted me to do. So that's what he meant when he said just fight him.”
That’s roughly been the development plan for the 19-year-old Williams in his rookie year -- figure it out. He’s started the Bulls’ last 13 contests dating back to their third preseason game after coming off the bench all 29 of his games as a freshman at Florida State. He’s taken on all-time defensive assignments, from LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Leonard.
“To talk about 11 (regular season) games, 11 starts, you’ve just got to take it for what it is. I couldn’t really think about ‘I’m thrown into the fire. I didn’t have a summer league. I barely had a preseason,’” Williams said. “You’ve just got to roll with it.”
Roll with it he has, staying level-headed all the way. Though in film prep and the heat of competition, Williams said he treated Leonard as “just another guy I had to guard,” he admitted to Sunday’s matchup being a bit special, calling Leonard his “favorite player” growing up -- remember, 19-year-old -- and someone whose game he's picked pieces off of for years.
“I learned everything from him,” Williams said, specifically citing Leonard’s mid-post game; the way he organizes and communicates with teammates -- even while not directly involved in the play himself; and the way the man affectionately nicknamed “The Klaw” uses his arms and hands to generate deflections and steals.
“Part of the reason he was my favorite player was because I did see a lot of similarities. I tried to pick up on things he does. I've been trying to do that since high school. In my year in college, I tried to do it even more,” he continued. “I definitely see the potential that I have to be a player like him. Definitely, like, a two-way player that can get stops and then also be a reliable offensive talent. I talk a lot about being a two-way player and he's the model of a great two-way player… It was just a blessing to be out there and play against him.”
After the final horn, Leonard and Paul George had “good words” for Williams, as did LeBron James after Friday’s bout. Leonard, specifically, told Williams he liked the way he played and to “keep working, keep going,” the rookie said.
Through an unrelenting first professional season, Williams will. He shared credit with Donovan for his strong recent play, capped for the moment by an outing against the Clippers in which he posted career highs in minutes (36), points (17) and made 3s (three). Each of his two steals came on Leonard.
“We just have that kind of relationship where he gets the best out of me and I trust him,” Williams said of Donovan. “It was times in the huddle where he might yell at you, but you’ve got to know that he just wants to win. He wants you to get better. He wants the best for you. We definitely have that relationship to where anything he says, I know it’s to get me better on or off the court. He’s really a good guy too, so it’s easy to listen to him and pick up the things that he says.”
Williams’ steady clip from 3-point range to this point -- 11-for-24 (45.8 percent) -- he attributed to increased reps, and the aid of the team’s veterans, especially Garrett Temple.
“I got guys that love to, you know, after practice shoot with me. Pretty much all the guys I shoot with give me tips,” Williams said. “Just yesterday I was talking to [Temple], and I kinda take, like, a rhythm dribble. And just yesterday he told me you don't have time for that and we got up a lot of shots just catch-and-shoot, quick release. That definitely helped today.”
If you needed any more evidence that Williams is a player focused on learning: All three of his 3-point makes Sunday were catch-and-shoot tries. His two misses came after pounding one dribble (caveat: one was to sidestep a strong contest by Leonard).
As for the result… well, the Bulls did and didn’t “figure it out.” Though he ended with 35, Leonard scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter, with Williams party to multiple misses. But the Clippers prevailed. Critical down the stretch was a play on which Leonard snatched a Wendell Carter Jr. pass intended for Zach LaVine, leading to a Marcus Morris layup attempt that missed, but drew a shooting foul.
That sequence put the hosts ahead 115-110 with five-and-a-half minutes to play. Turnovers ruled the day. Twenty-three on the Bulls’ end turned into 31 Clippers points.
While conventional wisdom might say Williams’ path will get easier with matchups against Antetokounmpo, James and Leonard in the rearview, he’s keeping his keel even.
“It's the NBA. Every guy I guard has a chance to go out there and get 30,” Williams said. “Whether it's Tim Hardaway (Jr.) from Dallas or LeBron James, they all have the ability, the talent and the skill to go out there and impose their will offensively. So every game is a different challenge. I wouldn't say one is harder than the other, but it's definitely different every game.
“You just gotta kinda learn how to take it game by game, approach each game as that game with its own obstacles, its own course. And then when that game is over just being able to lock into the next game and the next guy I have to guard. So that's pretty much where my mind is, just how to lock in game after game after game.