The NBA playoffs are arriving with haste as the seeding games come to a close this week. Some combination of the Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Spurs will meet in the play-in games to determine the Western Conference 8-seed.
For Jay Williams, the past few weeks have meant a return to the studio with Maria Taylor and Jalen Rose [and a remote Paul Pierce] for ESPN’s NBA Countdown. He’s also preparing for his national radio debut as a co-host of Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin on ESPN Radio in the 6-10 a.m. slot beginning next Monday.
This past Tuesday, Williams spoke with Uproxx about his move to radio (that story will come soon) and also for a lengthy discussion on bubble basketball, Damian Lillard’s incredible run of play, concerns he has about the Lakers and Bucks, buying in on Toronto, the emotional toll of the bubble, and much more.
First off, have you been impressed by the level of play in the bubble — up until this point where we start seeing more resting and such? Have you been impressed by how guys have come out and the competitive nature of play we’ve seen?
Bro, can I tell you how excited I am to talk hoops with you because you’re a basketball nerd like me. And I don’t feel like everyday people are really appreciating the level of basketball that’s being played during a pandemic, in a bubble, in Disney World. So, number one, hearing the level of communication on sets has been mind-boggling to me. It’s like, I might as well be a kid at Toys ‘R Us — kids don’t even know what Toys ‘R Us is anymore, it’s a physical version of Amazon. Hearing guys call out downscreens, what their cadences are, it’s been incredible.
Watching T.J. Warren put up buckets, even though last night he kind of got shut down by Jimmy Butler, which was a matchup I was dying to see considering their feud that they had earlier in the year. Watching what the Phoenix Suns have been doing, going undefeated with Monty Williams has been incredible, with Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton. That’s a duo that, when we always talk about Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson or KAT and D-Lo, people always forget about Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Well, don’t forget about them now, look at them right now. Just the Clippers playing without players and still performing at a pretty high level. Watching the Lakers not come out and be what we thought the Lakers were, but watching Portland play at a high level and seeing them as a potential first round matchup series if they’re able to get by Memphis.
There’s so much good basketball being played right now. It’s absurd, bro. It’s like I’m in the candy shop.
The Portland thing is something I wanted to bring up, and it looks like they’re going to end up in a play-in series. Obviously they’ve gotta get through these next two games, but they’re playing some teams that have already been resting folks. From the perspective of a guy who’s been in a lead guard position like Dame, I think we’ve become a little desensitized to how ridiculous his play his been in the bubble and in the month or so leading up to the stoppage. He has, what, like five (ed note: now six, as this was before his game against Dallas) 50-point games this year?
I think we grown used to, like, oh another 50-point game, but that just doesn’t happen. What have you seen from him over the last couple years, cause he’s gone from All-Star snub guy to top-10 guy in the league without question. What have you seen in his development where he’s gotten to this point to where he can pull a team to where they need to get to?
That dude just has a relentless soul. Do you follow him on social media?
So him and I DM every once in a while, and — this is the crazy part about doing TV for as long as I’ve been doing TV. I go all the way back to the Draft Combine. I remember watching him work out and him and I wrapping, and I remember asking him after the first day, “So how do you measure up?” And he looked at me and said, “Man, I belong here.” He said it with that tone, and you can’t see my face, Robby, but it was like, “Man, I belong here.”
And for a kid from Weber State, I was like, oh, he’s different. You’re different. And I think for him, whether it’s Skip Bayless, whether it’s the little feud he had with P-Bev or going back and forth with PG, people just keep feeding him. This is the way he has flamed his entire career. His entire career people telling him he couldn’t do it, so when I see people do that I’m like, “What are you doing?”
I had some fun with him last night and I sent it to him. We had to do who are your top 5 players currently in the bubble, and I went with Giannis, Bron, Kawhi, James Harden — even though James Harden should probably be up higher, he should be like two with the way he’s been playing — and I went with AD as fifth. And Jalen and Paul — Paul had Luka in his top-5, which is another argument, and J-Rose had Dame. Before they even said anything, I was like, “I don’t have Dame on here, because I want him to continue to be angry.” Because I said it a month and a half ago during the pandemic — as I’m here patting myself on the back, which I told you I don’t like to do [laughs], dammit! — they can beat the Lakers man.
I firmly believe they can beat the Lakers. Not having Avery, not having Rajon. The way this team is playing right now, they can’t defend the guard position. People forget last year this team went to the Western Conference Finals, and having Nurkic back and having Zach Collins back — not even having Trevor Ariza or Rodney Hood — they can still beat the Lakers because they have Dame and C.J. When those dudes get going, they are one of the most fun duos to watch in the game of basketball.
That brings me to something else I wanted to ask. What is the level of concern with the Lakers with how they’ve come out? Because the question for this team all along has been, “What does this supporting cast give LeBron and AD?” And outside of Kuz, nobody’s really looked like they’re ready to step up. Waiters has looked like a guy that hasn’t played a lot of basketball, same with J.R.
Caruso does a lot of the little things, but doesn’t seem like a guy who can pick up a lot of the scoring load. Where is the level of concern for what the Lakers have shown you, even knowing LeBron is going to flip his switch?
I think it’s pretty high. I think it can help them some, because I think LeBron will have to do so much more. Number one, defending guards is going to be a challenge for them. Alex Caruso is going to have his hands full with trying to guard the likes of Dame. Same with KCP, same with J.R., same with Waiters, anybody. And same with C.J., because he moves around continuously without the ball. But the biggest challenge I see with the Lakers is: How much can LeBron do? I’ll ask you this question: Who’s the next facilitator on that team? Who else other than LeBron makes people look good and makes the game easier for others?
Yeah, I mean, that’s the question, because Caruso, if he’s taking on a bigger defensive load that takes away from what you’re doing offensively and takes your legs.
Yep, and with the utmost respect to Alex Caruso, cause I love watching him play, he’s not the facilitator that Rondo is. Like, Rondo averaged 5.5 assists a game. Like, dude, just sign someone who puts the ball on a dinner platter for you to go up and score makes life so much easier. Now everything comes down to LeBron. Now, I know how as a defense how to cater my defensive plan to stopping you, and I’m going to make LeBron James guard. Whoever you’re on, we’re going to run action towards LeBron James, keep him moving. So if I make him tired on the defensive end, I make him guard, I sure as hell and gonna make him tired offensively. And we know LeBron’s not going to be able to guard each and every possession, not in the playoffs. Not if we get to like a Game 6 or a Game 7 in the first round if that happens. That becomes a long, grueling couple of months for LeBron James. That’s a lot to ask of someone who’s 35 years old.
Right, and I think that’s what you wonder with LeBron — and he’s still preposterous at 35 years old. It’s funny because we talk about LeBron hasn’t looked great and he had 29 and 12 last night, and we’re like, “Eh, is that enough?”
No, you know, every time LeBron James has won a championship, he’s had another high level facilitator on his team. Kyrie, D-Wade. D-Wade was also a really good passer, FYI, and a lot of his assists were to LeBron. So now I look at it and say, “OK, he’s playing with another top 5 player, but that top 5 player, you have to make sure you get him the ball.” With D-Wade and Kyrie, I can take a possession off. Let them bring the ball up the floor. Do your thing, cook.
Now I have to come down and get the ball to AD, create for AD. Who’s creating for me? Who’s making the game easier for me? Nobody. Alright, if I’m a defense, get it J.R. Smith, put the ball down on the ground. I know you’re one dimensional, I know you’re going to look for J.R. Smith. Dion Waiters, I know you’re going to look for Dion Waiters. Like, there’s nobody that can make other people great and that’s the hard part right now. No one’s going to make the game easy for LeBron.
Outside of that Portland matchup, what other teams in the West do you look at as being the biggest threats to the two L.A. squads?
[Long sigh] Being the biggest threat?
Like the team that could take down the Clippers or a Lakers in a seven game series?
Wow, I don’t see anybody taking down the Clippers. I don’t.
OK, even though they’ve got to kind of work guys back in — Montrezl is just back — in the playoffs?
I think they have a great problem because they have so much firepower. But you know, I take that back. The Houston Rockets, I think the Houston Rockets — right now they’re in the 4 so they’d match up with the Lakers. Alright let me ask you this, can you imagine if the Lakers had to play Portland, and let’s say that took them six games, and then they have to play the Houston Rockets?
Who just run you ragged.
Are you serious? Like by the time they got to the conference finals, you know how tired they would be? So, I mean, I don’t see Denver. I like having Jamal Murray back, that’s big for them, and MPJ has been great. I like Michael Porter Jr., I thought the Knicks really missed on that draft pick — they miss on a lot of draft picks, but in particular that one. Bol Bol, too. But I don’t think they have, like — I think they’re still so young. And their superstar, Nikola Jokic, is like he’s not a top 5 player in the league yet. When I watch him, he’s super talented but the talent doesn’t jump off the page to me like an Anthony Davis does or a LeBron James or Kawhi or James Harden or Jayson Tatum or Kyrie or Kevin Durant. He’s in that next tier, but he’s still a max guy if that makes sense.
Then, Utah, we have this question all the time and I’ll ask you: Is Donovan Mitchell a superstar in the league?
I think he’s a star, but not a superstar.
Yeah, I’m with you, and without Bogdanovic their offense, they just don’t have enough.
Exactly. OKC plays really hard, I love what CP3 is doing.
They’re going to be obnoxious. That’s what they’re going to be, like they’re another team you just wouldn’t want to play in a series because that’s five or six miserable games.
Exactly, but like I think Portland and Houston could beat the Lakers. Like, Houston may be able to beat the Clippers, but it’s still so tough because between, “Alright Patrick Beverley, go get ‘em. Alright, Reggie Jackson go get ‘em. Alright PG, go get ‘em. Alright Kawhi, go get ‘em.” You have so many guys and so many bodies you can throw at [Harden]. I still think Houston would have the best chance if they were to matchup against the Clippers, but it’s looking like they matchup against the Lakers in the semis, which for the Clippers, I’m chilling. We want this two-seed. Let me get this. Let me go against Dallas, which would be a great matchup, then let me go against Denver or OKC or Utah. Like, I’m cool. Great. Be rested, get ready for the chip. Lakers having to go through Portland and Houston, good luck with that.
On the East side, the Raptors have looked terrific aside from the one game against the Celtics. How much of a believer are you in this Toronto team and where their chances lie in the East with likely a second round series with Boston and the conference finals with the Bucks?
So, I think they are the best coached team in the NBA. I think Nick Nurse should’ve won the National Coaches of the Year award. And I think the one thing that makes them so unique in the East is they have the most versatile chess pieces defensively to guard the wings of Boston, but to also guard Giannis. Between OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell, you have a lot of people who are similar in size and length, with the exception of Norman who is different dynamically because he can get up underneath you and is so quick laterally and is so strong.
And Fred [VanVleet] does that too.
And Fred too. So they have so many different looks. They can build a wall against Giannis, they did it last year in the playoffs and I know they had Kawhi, but still, Giannis shot 18 percent against Serge and 48 percent against Pascal, and then you have a big body in Marc Gasol in the middle. And then those guys can also guard the wings against Boston.
Look, the scouting report’s out on Boston, man. When they make threes, they’re one of the best teams in the league. When they don’t and you make them play in the halfcourt, they become very iso-basketball and their assists go down and they’re not as efficient. So those wings can contest threes late and make them hard contests. So I think Toronto, due to being in the East, is in a great position to make it to back-to-back NBA Finals.
Which would be incredible.
It really would be.
And with the Bucks, like the Lakers they haven’t been at their best in the bubble, and I think they have similar questions. On paper you say, OK, they have a good supporting cast, but given Bledsoe’s struggles the past two playoffs, you still want to see it happen in the postseason. Where are you at on the Bucks, and I guess same question with the Lakers, what’s the level of concern for the favorites in the East right now?
Look, I love watching Giannis play. I do. It’s, for a lot of these teams, Boston, your best player is Jayson Tatum, then you’ve got Jaylen Brown, then you’ve got Kemba and you’ve got Gordon. If you’re Toronto, you got Pascal, you got Kyle — like trust me, he put up buckets against the Lakers — you’ve got Fred, who’s underrated. You’ve got guys who can score a little bit, even if they’re known for their defense. Milwaukee doesn’t really defend three-point shots, they let you shoot. They defend inside the paint, where they’re basically the best in the league, but like, you know, Khris Middleton is extremely underrated but beyond that who’s their consistent third guy? Like, I don’t know.
It’s gotta be Bledsoe, but last two years, not a lot of confidence.
I know, man. And I don’t know if I have a lot of confidence now. And then I’m like, George Hill, he seems like a grandpa on that team, he keeps getting older and older and older. And I think George Hill is serviceable, but I don’t know if he’s at that level. Pat Connaughton’s talented, but I think what we’re going to see is them losing Malcolm Brogdon is going to hurt them in the playoffs, man. I don’t think we’ve seen it hurt them in the regular season, but in the playoffs we’re gonna see how much — cause he can go get his. He can go create, you can count on him for that consistency. You can’t do that now, and you don’t know who that third person is going to be consistently every night with that kind of play. That’s going to be a major problem for them.
I think — and this is something I’ve been ruminating on for a bit is, coming out of the Warriors era, which was preceded by the Heat era of these superteams where maybe they’re beatable in a Finals but they don’t have glaring flaws — it is kind of strange having to shift back to this understanding that even the best teams, you can poke at them and see flaws, which is different than what we’ve had in almost a decade and it makes this playoffs really interesting on both sides.
I also want to say this. My daughter’s about to turn two in October, and one of the things that saves my life, Robby, is when I have tough days at work or tough days in business, when I walk my foot through the door of my house, I have to leave all that at the doorstep. I have to become a present father and a present husband, and I don’t care what anybody says, that recalibrates you. When you step away from something for a little bit of time, it helps with your focus and it helps you realign when you come back and visit it. One of the challenges that nobody really speaks about is, these guys can’t leave it. You can’t leave it. You see your kids on iPhone, you see your wife on iPhone, you can’t lay down next to her. You can’t have a good home cooked meal. You can’t just escape for a minute. That’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out, man. That’s a big thing. Like, you think LeBron James, spending time four months at home and seeing his kids every day, even if he had a bad game his kids couldn’t get him out of that funk?
And I think LeBron’s kind of hinted at that. Like, when people have asked what’s going on he’s been like, “Well we’re not hitting shots, but it’s also other stuff.” And like he’s never going to say it, but you know how that dude rolls. That’s family man number 1.
That’s what I’m saying, man. You don’t think that’s going to carry some kind of toll? If I have anxiety going to work at the South Street Seaport because of my baby, you don’t think LeBron James has some anxiety? Like, people don’t talk about these intricacies of what guys are dealing with, it’s all about the results of what’s out on the court. You’re asking those guys to go on the court during a pandemic, while there’s social protests going on about Black Lives Matter, while [LeBron’s] the official voice of Black Lives Matter for the NBA. Wow. Shit, that’s a lot of weight to carry. That’s a lot man.
You know, that’s not easy to do. People can be like, well just focus on basketball, but he also doesn’t just shut up and dribble. But we’ll tear him down if he doesn’t win a championship, but we’ll also tear him down if he does win a championship but doesn’t step up for what Black people are going to and he’s a savior there as well. Damn, so that’s a lot to carry in your backpack every day. Living in the public eye is not an easy thing, and standing up for social justice in the midst of all of these things happening and the pressure that comes along with that, the way he handles that is just remarkable.
Yeah, it’s something that — to come in with the spotlight he had at 18 and his biggest misstep being a charity fundraiser Decision TV program…
Yeah that went to the Boys & Girls Club.
Always is incredible to me, that the worst thing he’s done in the public eye was essentially a charity thing that pissed a bunch of people off.
You know, man, I’ve been on TV [to talk about this] a bunch of times and it turns into such an argument for me, because I say LeBron is the greatest player to ever play the game. I say that because my whole life I learned that it’s about more than just the game of basketball. If winning’s all you care about, then Bill Russell is the greatest player of all time. Or if being undefeated is it. But what’s your impact? How are you making a difference? There’s more to being the greatest player than just winning. It’s pushing the culture forward and standing for what’s right in the midst of the chaos that you’re experiencing on the floor. I continue to be mesmerized by him.