Mr. Miyagi once told Daniel Russo that “the best defense is don’t get hit.” In NBA terms, this translates to “the best defense is don’t get scored on.” A simplification, but true nonetheless.
Against the Toronto Raptors, both Robert and Grant Williams incorporated “Miyagi-do” basketball’s defensive principles, locking down their respective counterparts with intelligent rotations and stellar timing on shot contests.
For both Williamses, the defensive performance against the Raptors was a much-needed step in the right direction. Robert Williams has been influential on offense since the start of the season, but his progress on defense has moved at a much slower pace. In contrast, Grant Williams has come out of the gate struggling, regularly getting burnt on defensive rotations and making uncharacteristically poor decisions on both ends of the floor. His errors in a winnable game in Indiana were striking.
I'm a big Grant Williams fan. I think he does a lot of things well and he's a really smart player. That's why bad mistakes stand out more. Sabonis' game-winner gets the attention, but what is this? Brogdon killed Boston all game. Smart is screened. Grant sticks in no-man's land. pic.twitter.com/xThzjV5dcY— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) December 28, 2020
Let’s start with Robert Williams.
We’ve all heard about the third-year big’s issues with staying grounded. Like most young athletic centers looking to make a noticeable impact, he’s prone to block hunting. However, against the Raptors, Williams displayed the defensive discipline we’ve all been yearning for since the Celtics drafted him.
Above is Williams’ first defensive possession of the contest, guarding the perimeter and matching up with Norman Powell. You can tell the Raptors guard has read the scouting report as he instantly goes to a hesitation dribble, which Williams would usually bite on. Instead, Timelord stays on his feet and cuts off the middle, forcing Powell to attack the lane. Rookie Aaron Nesmith reads the offense and makes a smart rotation to provide help defense around the rim, while Williams uses his length to protect the bucket further.
Mr. Miyagi would be proud of the consistency between the above two plays. In this clip, Williams begins the defensive possession guarding former Celtic Aron Baynes. Fred VanVleet creates space by rejecting the Pascal Siakam screen and attacks the open lane. The Williamses combine to create a solid defensive possession here.
First, Grant Williams switches off Siakam and onto VanVleet, cuts off the middle, and prevents the drive from the Raptors guard. Robert Williams has rotated over and now occupies the space directly under the rim. VanVleet defers the ball to Siakam, who finds Baynes open on the low-block. Robert Williams anticipates the shot, rotates over, and does just enough to force the miss.
Smart switchable plays are precisely what you hope the Texas A&M product can provide, something that has become ever more consistent since the start of the season. There are statistical bi-products that come with staying grounded, too.
As things stand, the 6’8’’ Louisianna native is on course for a career year on the glass, where he is currently averaging 6.8 rebounds per game. It’s not surprising that this jump in rebounding efficiency has come at the same time Williams has begun either staying in front of his man or on their hip. By not playing every defensive possession chasing players in the rearview after biting on pump fakes, Williams can now position himself for box outs, as he attempts to kill offensive possessions after the initial attack.
Ok, fantastic, Robert Williams is finally figuring it out on defense. But what about Grant Williams?
After producing a couple of stinkers back-to-back, Williams didn’t see the floor in the second game against the Detroit Pistons. However, the second-year big’s performance against the Raptors has gone some way to consigning those poor showings to memory.
This defensive sequence is precisely what you expect to see from Grant Williams when everything is clicking: smart reads, clever rotations, finished off by Miyagi-do 101 - don’t let them score.
Initially protecting the high help-line, Grant Williams sees Kyle Lowry getting downhill and slides into his driving lane, staying big throughout with high hands and a wide stance. Once Lowry defers the rock, Williams begins to follow Lowry out onto the perimeter before noticing that Stanley Johnson has beaten Jayson Tatum off the dribble.
The possession ends with Grant Williams drawing the charging foul. This play is arguably his best defensive possession of the season; the 6’7’ big looked switched on and perfectly read the offense.
Grant Williams: "Sometimes I just get in my head and don't focus on what I have to do. Tonight, I was able to play freely."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) January 5, 2021
Here’s another defensive play from the younger Williams. Back peddling in transition, the Texas native ensures he kills any drives down the middle with his positioning, forcing the ball handler to attack with his off-hand. After shading him, Williams stays big and contests the shot with exceptional timing, getting the block as a result.
Both the Williamses showed very encouraging signs of growth on Monday night. Neither hardly put a foot wrong on the defensive end. However, while this is encouraging to see, it’s only one game, and time will tell if their performances were a legitimate sign of things to come or an outlier.
But, let’s allow ourselves to get excited for a moment. If what both of these young bigs showed against Toronto is real and their development is entering a new phase, the Celtics bench is far superior defensively than when they finished last season.
We should temper our expectations in the short term, though, and continue to allow these versatile young bigs to continue their development. After all, it took Daniel Russo a whole training montage to defeat the Kobra Kai.