Lou Williams helping Clippers clamp down on Nuggets

Doc Rivers often reminisces about his first sit-down with Lou Williams after the Clippers acquired the guy known as a professional scorer in 2017. The coach’s message then: “I just want to make it clear, when we’re bringing you in the game, we’re not bringing you in to be a defensive player, we’re bringing you in to score.”

Williams obliged, solidifying his place as the game’s greatest off-the-bench scorer by averaging more than 20 points per game over his three seasons with the Clippers.

But this season – this moment – is different. There’s a title at stake.

“You know, guys – especially the older guys – they don’t have a lot of opportunities, and some of them had zero opportunities,” Rivers said via Zoom video conference Thursday. “They’ve been in the league for a long time. (There’s) a sense of urgency and awareness of where they’re at.”

And so Williams, the slick 15th-year guard who’s esteemed as a pick-up-and-play guy, trained hard in the now-long-ago offseason, going so far as to share workout videos with his teammates to inspire them to match his effort.

Now, with the Clippers up 3-1 on Denver in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series and in pursuit of the team’s first NBA title, Williams is putting in impressive work on the defensive end of the court, playing with an intensity well beyond what Rivers requested three years ago.

It’s showing: According to NBA’s Player Tracking data, the slight, 6-foot-1 guard is holding the Nuggets he’s guarding to 37.1% shooting. That’s better than everyone on the Clippers after Paul George (34.6%) and Patrick Beverley (35.3%).

“I think for Lou, he just tries,” George said Wednesday, after the Clippers defeated Denver 96-85 to move within a victory of the Clippers’ first conference finals berth.

“Everybody knows he’s not a defensive player, but Lou tries. That’s all you can ask for out of Lou, just try. Nine times out of 10, he’s making some big plays. … his effort has been amazing.”

George said he sees Williams helping the Clippers’ bigs, being crafty and active with his hands. And Kawhi Leonard – the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year who, this season, was a second-team All-Defensive selection – said he appreciates Williams’ defensive awareness.

“Just knowing what coverage he’s in,” Leonard said. “We’re big on him trying to box those guys out. You know, he’s doing a great job at it. He did well tonight, just being locked in and using his hands trying to get deflections. He’s been big for us.”

After grinding out the win Wednesday, Williams said defense is required if the Clippers – against whom the Nuggets’ offensive rating has dropped to 103.4 from 116.8 in the first round – are going to advance toward their end goal in the Lake Buena Vista, Fla., bubble.

“Tonight it showed, our offense was failing us and we didn’t have a great shooting night, but we hung our hats on the defensive end,” Williams said. “That’s gonna have to be our makeup going into the next game. We smell blood, and I’m sure those guys are gonna fight like crazy to get a game, but we’re gonna fight as well.”

Denver overcame a 3-1 deficit in the first round, but doing so again seems all the more daunting because of the Clippers’ defense. L.A. has limited Jamal Murray to 17.8 points per game on 38.2% shooting – a drop from the 31.6 points he was averaging in the first round, when he shot 55.0% against Utah.

“They’ve been just dogging and hounding Jamal Murray everywhere,” Denver Coach Michael Malone said. “And it’s been really hard to get him open for quality looks … I have to get him easier looks, and (Wednesday night) we worked so hard for everything we tried to get, and obviously we’re struggling to make shots right now.”

Williams might not sympathize with the Murray’s plight, but as one of the Clippers’ go-to scorers, he can appreciate it, he said Wednesday night.

“We have so many different bodies we can throw at them and make it difficult to score,” Williams said. “I’ve dealt with it in practice, it has its challenges. And I understand in the playoffs – when these guys are dead serious, they’re not taking plays off – how difficult that can be.”

Especially, it turns out, when Williams is out there interfering alongside them.

Western Conference semifinals

Game 4: Nuggets (1-3) vs. Clippers (3-1)

When: 3:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida

TV: TNT