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An ode to Grant Williams, his defense against Kevin Durant, and a potential date with Giannis Antetokounmpo

Williams was vital in the Celtics’ sweep of the Nets.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, the Boston Celtics were staring into the abyss, one game away from elimination at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets. Now, the Celtics are heading into the second round as the only remaining undefeated team in the post-season.

Boston’s fortunes aren’t the only thing that’s changed over the last 12 months. Actually, almost everything has changed - new coaching staff, Brad Stevens in the front office, Jayson Tatum an elite playmaker, Jaylen Brown an off-ball scoring machine, and Grant Williams as an integral bench player on both ends of the floor.

Every change we’ve witnessed has been a welcome one, even if it took a while to see the benefits. But Grant Williams’ development has been astounding, and the upside that his growth has provided cannot be understated.

Throughout Boston’s four-game series with the Nets, Williams often found himself with the unenviable task of guarding either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving on the perimeter. This is the same Williams who couldn’t be trusted to stay in front of the opposing team's fourth or fifth option just a year ago, and now he’s tasked with containing some of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen.

On the offensive end of the floor, the Tennessee product was a valuable screener, but his true value came as a floor-spacing forward who could attack closeouts in a pinch, and provide a sturdy body when crashing the glass. It’s that blend of offensive and defensive skill that saw Williams end the Celtics' opening series as one of the more influential players in the rotation, such was his incredible impact. But, for all of the three-point shots, it was on the defensive end where the Texas native made his presence felt.

A closer look at Williams’ defense

With Williams’ width and build, you never worry if he’s guarding the low-post, regardless of who is attacking or backing him down. But the perimeter is a different animal. That’s where the lions of the jungle reside, and the laterally-challenged are nothing but prey for the taking. Last season, the Celtics continually served up Grant Williams à la carte, but this time around, Williams was the one doing the hunting, and it’s clear he likes the big game.

According to Instat’s tracking data, Williams defended 18 perimeter shots throughout the Celtics' four-game series, with five of them finding the target. Of course, contesting a shot is great, especially when you’re limiting guys to 5-of-18 shooting, but Williams’ true value came in the form of his denials.

When you think of denial in basketball terms, your brain usually goes straight to “denying the passing lane” which basically means limiting a player's opportunities to receive the ball or to make a pass. But you can also deny drive, shots, and even dribbles.

Take this possession from the opening quarter of Game 4 for example. Williams is guarding Durant on the perimeter and is aiming to deny anything that allows the Nets superstar an opportunity to get towards the middle of the floor. I like to call this a “drive denial,” because that’s what Williams’ sole focus is on this play, don’t let Durant drop his shoulder and get to his spots.

Take note of how Williams forces Durant towards the sideline, and then slides his feet with his hips kept wide, so that there’s no advantage to be generated from a crossover. Suddenly, Durant has dibbled himself into trouble on the baseline, and the Dork Knight gets himself the strip.

There is nobody on earth that was expecting Williams to give Durant this type of work on a single possession, let alone every game, but that’s exactly what happened. Make no mistake, though. Williams wasn’t being selective with who he guarded, or how he limited them. Everybody was welcome to get the smoke.

The above clip is from Game 2 shows Williams switch onto Irving around the free-throw line extended. Unlike Durant, the Nets' star guard is extremely difficult to contain off the dribble, so there’s no judgment on how Irving gets Williams to shift his weight before he blows by him. Still, Williams does a great job in staying with Irving on a rearview contest before ending the defensive possession with a block.

We could pull example clips for hours to show how effective Williams was against Brooklyn’s stars, and they would predominantly be positive because that’s how often the third-year combo forward locked down the opposition. Courtesy of NBA Stats. the numbers bear out Williams’ overall effect on Brooklyn’s stars, too.

Grant Williams defensive numbers vs. Durant and Irving

Player Total Time Guarding Total Partial Possessions Total FG% Total FG3% Total Player Pts Total Team Pts
Player Total Time Guarding Total Partial Possessions Total FG% Total FG3% Total Player Pts Total Team Pts
Kevin Durant 12.26 68.2 24% 0% 18 66
Kyrie Irving 5.22 27.1 32% 25% 12 50
Grant Williams defensive numbers vs. Durant and Irving stats.nba.com

Considering Durant and Irving are considered to be two of the most skilled players of all time, Williams nullified their threat when switched onto them, both on the perimeter and within the mid-range.

Usually, after the first round of the post-season, the signoff would be ‘sterner tests are surely ahead’ but that can’t be the case in this instance. Rather, similar tests will surly await Williams and the rest of the Celtics' defense, but this series has forged them in iron, and now they will enter the second round full of confidence and ready to attack whoever stands in their way next. And when we think of what’s next, our minds turn straight to the Milwaukee Bucks, and of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Looking ahead to Milwaukee

The Celtics have faced the Bucks four times this season, splitting the series 2-2. However, we can’t gloss over the fact that Boston’s first win against the Bucks came without Giannis and Khris Middleton in the rotation, which of course, makes life far easier. Middleton is expected to miss the first two games with injury, which will surely help the Celtics get off to a good start, but they will still need to contain Giannis and force everyone else around him to become factors.

And that’s where Williams steps in again. However, unlike guarding Durant and Irving, Giannis isn’t going to isolate on the perimeter. Rather, he’s going to push the ball in transition, and look to get downhill off screens or rip-through’s, which will limit Williams’ effectiveness as a perimeter deterrent.

So, it’s likely that we see Williams operate as a help defender in this series, where the Celtics utilize his big burly body as a human stop sign when Giannis is speeding through the lane. How effective that will be is still to be seen. Luckily, we do have some matchup data from the regular season that we can look at, along with some clips, so let’s dive in.

Grant Williams vs. Giannis - Regular Season

Player Total Minutes Total Partial Possesion Total FG% Total FG3% Total Points Total Team Points
Player Total Minutes Total Partial Possesion Total FG% Total FG3% Total Points Total Team Points
Giannis Antetokounmpo 9.75 62.4 33.35% 0.00% 10 71
Grant Williams vs. Giannis - Regular Season stats.nba.com

As we can see, Williams has done admirably against Milwaukee’s human battering ram in small sample sizes and forced Giannis into some difficult looks.

Williams is never going to win the physical battles with Giannis, not many people can, but Boston’s young forward can be a good option to deny drives. Williams’ low center of gravity and robust base allows him to absorb contact while staying attached to his man, which will limit Giannis’ ability to build up speed in half-court situations.

Another area where Williams could be of use is guarding Jrue Holiday on the perimeter, and considering the job he did on Irving in the previous series, this could be a matchup we see from time to time.

The above play is demonstrative of the type of defense Williams will provide when switched onto Holiday, or similar players such as Grayson Allen. And we all remember the battle between him and Bobby Portis earlier in the season.

And, in lieu of the usual sign-off, I’ll leave you with this - Grant Williams of 2021-22 is not the same iteration of what we’ve previously seen. Credit to his shooting coaches, his nutritionists, and the team’s coaching staff who have all done a fantastic job in putting the 23-year-old in a position to succeed. And as we’ve seen, Williams’ success is tied to how well the Celtics perform on the defensive end - he’s becoming a vital cog.