Sunday, October 1 2023

If you could construct in a lab the perfect role player for the playoffs, what would he look like? 

He’d have to be a good shooter, that’s a must. You can’t play in the playoffs if you can’t shoot. And he’d have to be a good defender, too, ideally someone with the combination of size, skills and smarts to guard multiple positions. You’d also like him to have some tenacity to his game, someone who oozes energy in a way where it lifts those around him.

Grant Williams is not a perfect player. But he is a good one, someone who fits those categories listed above. 

He drilled 39.5% of his triples during the regular season, after connecting on 41.1% of his deep looks the season before. He’s a burly 6-foot-6 with quick feet, and incredibly savvy on the floor, making him one of only a handful of players in the league truly capable of guarding point guards, wings and centers. He’s got playoff experience. And he plays with a zest that, frankly, many of his Celtics teammates lack.

Yet, for reasons that remain unclear, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla had elected to mothball Williams for most of the team’s current playoff run. He didn’t play in three of the Celtics’ first-round games against the Atlanta Hawks. He received just 4:01 of playing time in Game 1 against the Sixers in the second round, just a little over eight minutes in Game 5, a DNP in Game 6 and just 3:23 in Game 7. He was benched again in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat

Last week, Mazzulla was asked about Williams’ demotion. He basically ignored the question. 

“Obviously in the playoffs, when minutes are expanding, you look to play seven or eight guys which we’ve kind of done throughout,” Mazzulla told reporters. “Like we said before, Grant is always going to be ready, and we’ve built a lot of versatility and depth in our lineup to where we can go a lot of different ways. We trust that anybody we call will be ready,”


Whatever the reason, it was clear that Williams did not have Mazzulla’s trust. But it was also clear — as they were in the midst of being embarrassed by a Heat team that won 13 fewer games during the regular season — that if the Celtics were to find a way to slow down the Heat, it would be with Williams playing a role. Sure, his trash talking toward the end of Game 2 might have lit a spark under Jimmy Butler, but Williams was one of the few Celtics players showing any fight. The same was true throughout the second half of Game 3, one in which Boston lost by 26.   

In Game 4, facing elimination — and with an offseason of reckoning awaiting the entire organization — Mazzulla leaned on Williams more than he has the entire postseason, playing him 29 minutes, and Williams rewarded the decision. He knocked down four of his six looks from deep and finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in the Celtics’ 116-99 win in Miami.

Williams was even better than his box score. 

Whenever the Celtics needed a big play, he was there, whether it was banging a run-killing 3 or rejecting Butler in the post. The Celtics outscored the Heat by 15 points in the minutes Williams was on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that a Celtics defense that had been struggling throughout the playoffs — Boston entered Game 4 surrendering 113.5 points per 100 possessions, a middle-of-the-pack-regular-season rate and 3-point drop-off from their regular-season mark — had its best game in weeks once Williams was re-inserted into the rotation. 

“Grant just played solid,” Mazzulla told reporters after the game, which in Mazzulla’s world, counts as high praise. “Made open shots. Did a great job screening versus the switch, and just executed the game plan defensively.” 

If the Celtics intend to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 playoff deficit, they need to keep Williams in the rotation. He’s not going to carry them the way Jayson Tatum needs to or can, but he does make the Celtics a better team. 

For some reason, it’s taken Mazzulla nearly three rounds to learn this. Him changing his mind in Game 4 is one of the reasons the Celtics’ season remains alive. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.


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