ATLANTA — A few weeks ago in a game like this, Lou Williams’ behind would have been glued to the bench.
Having worked through whatever discord might have existed between himself and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer — call it a doghouse, call it whatever you like — Williams has worked his way back into the lineup.
On Monday when the Hawks needed sorely needed him with starters Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll struggling offensively, Williams came through in a big way, scoring eight straight points at the end of the fourth quarter to help the Hawks snap a six-game losing streak with a 103-95 win over Philadelphia at Philips Arena.
Williams finished with 22 points and the Hawks (32-41) stayed one game ahead of the New York Knicks (32-43) for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, after New York’s win in Utah.
In his eighth season, Williams said he had never received a benching the way he did from Budenholzer. In the seven games from March 7 to March 18, Williams did not play a single minute. It began in a loss at Portland on March 5 when Williams was pulled after playing five minutes.
"That was the first time I dealt with that in my career and it was only for a matter of 10 to 14 days," Williams said, coolly. "We just had a conversation. We weren’t in a very great rhythm at that point in the season and we just wanted to try something new. I took it in stride. He told me to stay ready and that’s what I did."
In the Hawks’ past five games, including Monday, Williams has responded by averaging 15.4 points. With his 2012-13 season cut short by a major knee injury, Williams had struggled to produce early on. For the season, he has averaged 10.0 points per game, down from 14.1 last season.
Budenholzer said the way Williams earned his way back into the lineup is the definition of what it means to be a pro.
"He’s worked, he’s stayed after practice or before practice, he’s been doing extra work with Jeff Watkinson, our strength and conditioning coach," Budenholzer said. "I think it’s hard for people to understand what you mean when you say ‘to be a pro.’ That’s an example.
"He wasn’t getting to play and a pro comes in early, stays late, does extra work in the weight room. It’s a credit to him he was ready when we called on him. Everybody knows what a good player Lou is. I don’t think there was ever a doubt."
Perhaps the most frank comments on the situation came from Carroll, who credited Budenholzer, a first-year head coach, for his handling of the situation.
"I think he did a good job kind of not playing Lou, making him realize you can’t take the opportunity for granted," Carroll said. "Now he’s playing some of his better basketball so you’ve got to give coach credit for challenging players like he did."
On Monday, the Hawks very much needed Williams’ contribution against Philadelphia (16-58), a team that had lost 26 straight games before beating Detroit on Saturday. The 76ers almost made it two in a row, as they broke out to a 31-18 lead at the end of the first quarter. Former Georgia Tech standout Thaddeus Young was the catalyst, as he had 11 points half way through the first quarter on the strength of three 3-pointers.
At halftime, the Hawks trailed by 10. About the only thing keeping them in the game at that point was forward Paul Millsap. Millsap finished with team-highs of 28 points and 17 rebounds.
Korver, back in the lineup for the first time after sitting out six games with back spasms, said the Hawks realized the gravity of the situation in terms of trying to stay in the playoff race.
"There was a bit of a moment where we lose this game — that’s a tough one going forward with nine (games) left," Korver said. "We needed to win tonight."
Carroll said with the benefit of hindsight, it was easy to call the game a must-win.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "One of the worst teams in the NBA, it’s a must-win. I think any win down the stretch. If we keep playing hard and compete like we did in the second half, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win any game."
And that was what happened. By the end of the third quarter, the Hawks led 75-73 as they improved their defense and began to force a young Philadelphia team into more turnovers. The Hawks tied it on two free throws by Williams with 1:52 left in the period and then took their first lead since early in the first quarter on a basket in transition by Carroll that Williams assisted on.
In the fourth quarter, the game see-sawed back and forth until Williams struck late. With the score knotted at 92-92 with two minutes left in regulation, Williams scored his eight straight. Two of the baskets were 3-pointers from the corner in front of the bench of the 76ers, his former team.
After one of them, he celebrated with a fist pump.
"We were close to winning," Williams said, "so if that doesn’t get you excited, then nothing will, especially in this profession. Just playing off the emotion of the game."
And, no doubt, happy to be back in the rotation and contributing.â