That was then, this is now. And right now is a pretty good time for the Sixers, too, as they improved to 18-7 with a hard-fought, 95-90 win over the Lakers (14-11).
Williams, who finished with a team-high 24 points, scored 12 of the team's final 14 points over the final 3 minutes and 48 seconds as the Sixers overcame a late seven-point deficit to pick up their fifth win in six games.
"Coach always tells me to come in and be ultra-aggressive, especially in the fourth," said Williams. "Throughout my career I always felt that is my best quarter, so he just wanted me to come in and be aggressive. I like any challenge, especially when they put the ball in your hands and ask for big buckets in games like this. This is big for us. Any time we can beat the cream of the crop, those teams that you come in the gym every day and you want to be like, you want to be mentioned in that same conversation. To beat those teams and have the kind of start that we've had this year, it's just great."
So was Williams last night. After a jumper by Jrue Holiday (13 points, six assists) had cut the Lakers' lead to five, Williams closed the game out in Mariano Rivera fashion. He hit a three to cut it to two at 86-84 with 3:48 remaining. Then, after the teams traded baskets, Williams scored the game's next seven points to give the Sixers a 93-88 lead with 1:19 remaining. His two foul shots with 10.1 seconds remaining closed out the impressive win.
Williams' timely scoring allowed the Sixers to overcome a huge rebounding disparity, as the Lakers won the battle of the boards, 55-30.
"That was an amazing win for us," said coach Doug Collins, his light blue shirt made several shades darker due to perspiration. "I didn't know how we were going to battle through their size. We were trying to get our bodies on those guys, but they're just so big. I don't know if I've ever won a game where I got outrebounded by 25. I don't think we've ever done that, but I told our guys, 'They just keep coming. They just keep coming. They just keep playing.'
The Sixers were able to overcome the huge disadvantage on the boards by only turning the ball over four times, tying a floor record for least in a game. On the night, both teams attempted the same amount of shots (81).
When you're as good as the Lakers' Kobe Bryant you can almost toy with the game of basketball. The Lower Merion product entered the game needing 24 points to move into fifth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. He made quick work of that, reaching the milestone on a jumper midway through the second quarter.
After that, it appeared Bryant was satisfied with just fitting in and doing the less glamorous tasks, particularly feeding the ball to monstrous Andrew Bynum and fellow big man Pau Gasol. But when his team needed Bryant down the stretch, the Sixers bottled him up, often throwing a double-team at him. A 24-point, 8-for-14 shooting first half turned into just a 28-point, 10-for-26 night. As much as Williams propelled the offense, Andre Iguodala was just as instrumental in the game's outcome with his defense on Bryant.
"You try to make him take tough shots and [in the first half] he made tough shots," said Iguodala, who finished with 12 points, five assists and four rebounds. "I've been in this league a long time and I understand that guys are going to get hot. He's capable of that, it wasn't shocking to me. Guys can either cool off or keep it going. He exerts a lot of energy on offense and he's aging a little bit. Something told me that it would be hard for him to keep the pace. He could, but it would be difficult. I didn't change anything. I tried to keep pressure on him, make him take tough shots and I think we made him take 28 [actually 26] tough shots."
As Bryant cooled in the second half, the inside game heated up for the Lakers. Bynum finished with 20 points and 20 rebounds, 13 and 10 of them coming in the second half. But when the Sixers continuously collapsing into the lane on defense, Bryant wasn't able to take over as he has done so many times in his career.
"They just came after him immediately, and to Kobe's credit, what he did was to try to get everyone involved," said Lakers assistant coach John Kuester, who filled in for suspended head coach Mike Brown. "When you are coming down to the end of the game your margin of error is very small and you have to take advantage of that. Things just didn't go our way."
They did go Williams' way, though.
"From the start of my basketball career as long as I can remember, I've always played well in the fourth quarter," said Williams. "That was the quarter that was the most important if you were trying to win a basketball game. I've been blessed to be put into a position professionally where I have a coach and I have teammates that understand that about my game and they put the ball into my hands."
Forward Elton Brand sat his second consecutive game due to a sprained right thumb. Lavoy Allen (four points in 14 minutes) started in his place . . . Pau Gasol finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers . . . The Sixers host the San Antonio Spurs tomorrow and the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday . . . It is believed the Sixers will assign second-year forward Craig Brackins to the NBA Developmental League.