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Solving Boston’s backup center conundrum

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Spoiler alert: the answer is Grant Williams.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Backup center minutes for the Celtics have been a Magic 8-Ball in the playoffs. Not only is it a mystery as to who will check in behind Daniel Theis, but it’s relatively unknown how effective that Player X will be. The entire playoffs to this point have been tactical warfare. Against the bigger 76ers, Boston matched brotherly bulk with Enes Kanter. The Raptors stretched the floor more at the five which led to minutes for the bouncy Robert Williams.

Miami is a different monster. Unlike the Celtics’ first two postseason opponents, the Heat predominantly play one center — not unlike the Celtics themselves. Neither team has a backup on the level of Al Horford or Serge Ibaka. So far in the series, Bam Adebayo is averaging nearly 39 minutes a game with with former Celtic Kelly Olynyk spelling him for the minutes that remain. The two have proven to be a logistical hurdle that Brad Stevens has yet to clear.

Unlike with their previous two opponents, the Celtics haven’t yet found a consistent answer for those crucial bench minutes at center. In Games 2 and 3, Brad Stevens deployed Enes Kanter for short bursts with Adebayo on the court (playing the lead-footed Kanter across from Olynyk is a disaster waiting to happen). Robert Williams, meanwhile, hasn’t appeared since Game 1 — he’s arguably too trigger-happy defensively to check Miami’s savvy centers.

Bam Adebayo vs.

Daniel Theis (16:28, 57.9 possessions) 58 team points, 16 points, 7-15 shooting

Jaylen Brown (5:05, 19.0 possessions) 22 team points, 2 points, 1-2

Grant Williams (3:43, 14.3 possessions) 17 team points, 5 points, 1-1

Enes Kanter (2:20, 10.1 possessions) 16 team points, 7 points, 3-3

Apart from an appearance in the midst of Boston’s epic third quarter collapse in Game 2, Kanter’s minutes have been tolerable, if tenuous. The Celtics have made the most of his shifts by stashing him on offensive non-factor Andre Iguodala, sheltering him from the few Miami pick-and-roll possessions where he would be a profound liability. Thus far, the Heat have shown a curious lack of interest in attacking him. That will almost certainly change, especially if Jae Crowder’s comments on Tuesday are anything to go by.

A further complication for the Celtics is Theis’ ongoing struggle with foul trouble. The 28-year-old has a long history with the refs — some might even call it a war — and his availability late in games has been a recurring issue in the past two rounds. Theis does seem to get a questionable whistle at times, but he also loses defensive discipline as well. The combination of both leaves him constantly teetering on the verge of disaster. He fouled out of Game 1 and picked up his fifth in Game 3 by the 7:41 mark of the fourth quarter, which would mark his final appearance of the night.

This all leaves the Celtics in a bind. Theis probably can’t stay on the court for more than his current postseason average of around 30 minutes per game, and the usual suspects to check in for him have some profound weaknesses against Miami. But there’s one option we haven’t really discussed yet: Grant Williams.

Williams has actually seen minutes in every game of the Celtics’ postseason so far, but of Boston’s options at both the four and five, his playing time has been the most inconsistent. He has conceded a lot of time to the Timelord (heh) against Toronto, Kanter against Miami and — as a wing — Semi Ojeleye while Gordon Hayward remained absent. He’s recorded more than 12 minutes just three times in this postseason, with the most recent one coming all the way back in Game 3 against the Raptors.

Despite this, his performance on both ends of the floor has been consistently stellar when called upon. He’s a high-quality decision-maker who knows where to be on both ends of the court, and has a knack for making winning plays. Some would say he’s Large Marcus Smart. In our latest installment of Small Sample Size Theater, he’s also been absolutely unconscious from behind the arc in the postseason (10-of-16 from three).

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Though he’s undersized, he’s strong enough to battle Adebayo down low and quick enough to stand a chance against Olynyk and Miami’s many shooters on the perimeter (see his series-saving block in Game 7 against Toronto). Overwhelming size isn’t really a necessity against Miami anyways. In Game 3, he made an immediate impact upon checking into the game, canning a corner three and busting the Miami zone open by sneaking behind Adebayo to spring free for a bank shot.

The possible solution here is a bold one: let the rookie loose. We’re talking 20 minutes per night loose. Play Theis his customary minutes, and when he sits for rest or for foul trouble, the move is either Williams or small ball. Kanter and Timelord probably just don’t need to see the floor unless Williams also finds himself battling foul trouble (a legitimate possibility given that he picked up four fouls in nine minutes of play in Game 3, and has recorded four fouls in five of his 14 postseason games).

To an extent, this flies in the face of how the Celtics have opted to bring along their young players in recent years. Stevens is often reticent to lean on rookies as a major part of his rotation — recall Jaylen Brown averaging just 12 minutes per night in the 2016 squad’s run to the conference finals. In a series where every game has seemingly teetered on the razor’s edge, youthful mistakes can prove to be disastrous.

But it’s time to take the plunge. Williams has stepped up when the Celtics have needed him at every opportunity in this postseason, including the absolute highest-stakes situation possible in Game 7 against the Raptors (a shift extended, ironically, by Theis fouling out). He’s been everything we saw on the scouting report coming out of Tennessee, and then some. With none of Boston’s other options popping at the moment, there’s little to lose and a whole lot to gain from giving the rookie a chance to shine.