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Grant Williams fitting in as Celtics small ball center

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Montrezl Harrell’s thunderous dunks on Grant Williams revealed the rookie’s limitations as an NBA center. However, the Celtics still won his critical overtime minutes against the Clippers as Brad Stevens continues to experiment with his big men.

Los Angeles Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Brad Stevens spent the morning before the Celtics’ instant classic against the Clippers salivating over LA’s versatility. He reminisced about the idea of Marcus Morris playing the five, just as easily as Doc Rivers can supersize his lineups with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at guard.

“They’re loaded.”

The Celtics proved to be a little more loaded in their double-overtime win ahead of the All-Star break, going as small as the Rockets had two nights before to bounce back from a disappointing loss in Houston. Jayson Tatum’s play was the headline of Boston’s big win, but it was Brad Stevens’ revolving door at center that helped seal the victory late.

Grant Williams moved to center with Daniel Theis fouling out and Enes Kanter hobbling midway through the first overtime. Stevens utilized Williams at the five to close wins against the Hawks and Magic in the weeks prior. He scored 13 points in each game and — against a stronger opponent in the Clippers — comfortably integrated into Stevens’ closing rotation.

“We were really struggling with the pick-and-rolls with Lou and Kawhi there for quite a bit of the game,” Stevens said. “So we went super small and switched a lot and changed up matchups. We have to make sure Grant’s alive after Harrell dunked all over him, but other than that I thought he did a lot of good things.”

Williams recorded a block, steal, rebound, and assist despite scoring no points in the final frame. In total, the Celtics outscored LA by one point in his minutes — the lone positive +/- performance off Boston’s bench. He played all five minutes in the second overtime, where the C’s won 14-6. After the break against Minnesota, he finished scoreless again, with Boston outscoring the Wolves by seven in his minutes — three rebounds, two blocks, and an assist.

As Alex Kungu noted last night, don’t expect Williams to front bigger centers in isolation. Harrell — undersized in his own right — still towers over the 6’6 Williams. The “real centers” we hear about will overpower him, and Williams can’t employ his polished post moves on those giants.

Williams boasts seasoned instincts and positioning. As frustrated as Stevens gets with his team’s defensive rotations through their worst moments, it’s rare to see Williams mess up on that end. Harrell’s dunk, as disrespectful as it looked, did little damage as Grant already helped the Celtics turned a 4-0 swing with this recovery block.

More often than not, the Celtics run with a point guard, three wings, and a big. But even with that said, Williams shouldn’t go to waste. Theis — already Boston’s main preference at center even before scoring 25 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, and a blocking a shot on Friday to continue his stellar season — is averaging over three fouls per game and has missed six games to various bumps and bruises.

Health-wise, Stevens said Kanter is OK. He missed five games with a hip injury and since returning, has shot 16-for-38 (42%), while playing fewer than 10 minutes in two of the last three games. In Houston, the Rockets presented a clear matchup issue with its strictly wings lineup.

Enter Grant.

It’s clear why Williams fell so far in the draft despite these enormously helpful skills in the modern NBA. He doesn’t have a scoring role within the offense, aside from spot-up threes. Since starting 0-for-25 on those to start his career, he’s hit 41.7% since even while air-mailing a pair from the corner against Minnesota. Against the Hawks and Magic’s smaller lineups, he posted up and used an array of moves to score. His dream NBA Finals would be Rockets vs. Celtics.

A poor man’s version of Houston, Minnesota moves rapidly (particularly without their man in the middle, Karl-Anthony Towns), so whether Kanter deals with more injuries or gets rendered a liability in a playoff matchup, Williams fits defensively where Kanter does not. Robert Williams will factor into this conversation when he returns later this month. With Timelord’s height and athleticism, you wish you could combine him and Williams into one player.

However, in the immediate, Grant needs to become Boston’s secondary center option. Against the Clippers, he flexed his defensive versatility. Here’s the Geek Freak covering Lou Williams, one of the league’s shiftiest scorers. That’s about as good of a test as any for Grant’s footwork, both inside and on the perimeter.

This stop and Tatum’s on Kawhi one possession later prevented Landry Shamet’s three at the end of the first overtime from winning the game for LA.

The next might’ve been the best play of Grant’s young career. Gordon Hayward lost Lou when he faked toward receiving a pass above the arc, then reversed down low. Williams cut him off, then, when Tatum picked up Lou, he slid into the paint to cut Harrell off like Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl.

Stevens has a useful defender at his disposal for a minimum percentage of the team’s cap. That’s a win for Danny Ainge in last year’s draft. With the Celtics becoming the first team since 1990 to receive 25 points in regulation from four starters, they don’t need points from Williams. They need him to help close wins.