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Small ball musings: can Celtics win with Grant Williams at the 5?

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Could the 6’6 rookie grow into a much larger role for Boston?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

“The best ability a young player can have is dependability.”

As a college coach, our staff has the team focus on a meaningful quote. We need something to unify our vision and mentality while hopefully inspiring us towards a successful performance. With a particularly young team, we tend to feel the inconsistencies that come from relying on twentysomethings who aren’t yet comfortable being uncomfortable.

We tend to analyze basketball without the key context that many of these players are in their early twenties. They are struggling with that dependability, showing up every day regardless of how they feel and simply producing. Maturity struck early for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though those two have both found their top gear only recently.

At 21-years-old, Boston Celtics rookie Grant Williams is the next young guy who the team needs to depend on. As he moves into the second half of his first pro campaign (or second year, depending on how the league’s suspension goes), Williams will be the recipient of pivotal minutes and a vital role for a franchise with championship aspirations. Not only is he mature beyond his years, but he’s fulfilling the responsibility of being the Celtics’ small-ball center, a key role on this team.

Williams flashed his importance during the C’s double overtime victory over the Los Angeles Clippers before the All-Star break. Ever since then, I can’t stop wondering about the viability of him filling in as a de facto big for longer stretches.

Up two with 1:50 remaining in the second frame, the Celtics ran a nice set that ended with a Gordon Hayward bomb, giving them a five-point lead. Any time they can take a two-possession lead into the final minute is a huge bonus, so the ensuing possession after the Hayward try would be of the highest importance.

That’s where Williams stepped up, noticed a back-cut from Lou Williams, and rotated to stop a rim attack before snatching a huge turnover:

Grant keyed the stop with his recognition and the emergency switch, preserving the five-point lead for the C’s and taking the pressure off their offense.

Virtually every team has a small ball lineup in their deck of cards. Much of the last decade has seen smaller, more skilled teams with 3-point shooting advance to the NBA Finals. And while that places a good deal of pressure on the shoulders of the rookie from Tennessee, he’s proven more than equipped to handle it. As his game grows and he becomes more accustom to the speed and physicality of the NBA, this figures to be more of a long-term option than an immediate stop-gap for 2020 title hopes.

Going small may be their best path to foil the Eastern Conference’s top teams moving forward. The Miami Heat are destroying teams with All-Star Bam Adebayo at the 5. His propensity to push in transition or take less-mobile centers off the dribble could be a matchup problem for Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter. Williams–at least in small doses–helps mitigate those concerns. The same can be said with the Toronto Raptors and their pick-and-pop bigs in Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Chris Boucher. We’ve seen the struggles Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers has with stretch bigs in the prior postseason, too.

All paths to the Finals, in any iteration of a 2020 postseason that can be salvaged, ultimately run through Milwaukee. I’ve long believed the best way to beat the Bucks is to put Marcus Smart on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Smart’s tenacity is a skill unto itself and saves the defensive burdens from the offensive creators like Tatum and Brown. A 6’10” ball handler with long arms, Antetokounmpo is susceptible to having his dribble undercut if a defender is able to slide with him. Smart can do that.

Where does going small help? The Celtics then spread the Bucks out on the other end. Brook Lopez is receiving some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year within the Bucks’ drop scheme. The plodding seven-footer stays low to protect the rim, rarely venturing to challenge 3-point shooters. While Williams is subpar as a deep threat (an area identified as his biggest need for offensive improvement before he was drafted), he’ll have enough space to comfortable launch against the Bucks. Coach Mike Budenholzer is unflinching in his defensive schematics, which makes them ripe for being foiled by a drastic adjustment. For what it’s worth, after notoriously missing his first 25 three-point attempts, he’s shot a respectable 21-of-60 from behind the arc; he’s not exactly a threat, but not a liability either.

Those teams are the primary roadblocks on the Celtics road to championship basketball, both now and beyond. All are naturally built to thwart or exploit teams with slower centers, on offense or on defense. While the Celtics aren’t statistically overwhelming when they go small, the matchups long-term may be most advantageous when they do. All the best teams in the East, with the exception of Miami, feature a more anchored post player. Developing a counter lineup to all of them could be what helps separate the Celtics and Grant Williams could be a big part of that.

Everything about the rest of this season is up in the air, and Grant’s role in a 2020 postseason run may be limited due to experience. But as we turn our eye to the draft and the Celtics make long-term roster maneuvers, keeping Grant as a small ball option at center will alter how they evaluate positional need.

If anything, at least the Celtics know they have a young player they can trust.