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Grant Williams benching getting stranger after each passing Celtics game

After being a key contributor to last year’s Finals run, the Celtics versatile big man faces uncertainty heading into these playoffs and his restricted free agency this summer.

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Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Grant Williams shrugged in the locker room as his struggles continued, missing a pair of crunch time three-pointers and fouling four times in a close win over the 76ers. The offense slid late and bled out a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining before Jayson Tatum won the game at the buzzer. Williams played his typical 29 minutes after finishing with six at Indiana and not appearing after halftime in the first game following the All-Star break.

“You can’t control any of that,” Williams told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at a Celtics community event the following week. “You can only control your approach and how you respond. That’s something that you’d have to ask Joe and those guys. They have their reasons and their focus, so for me, it’s just a matter of maintaining that perspective and understanding that it’s not necessarily on the floor that I get to prove myself, you just prove yourself in the work that you put in, working out, playing as hard as you can, practices that the other guys don’t necessarily do, you do.”

The Knicks took Williams off the three-point line two nights later in a win where Jayson Tatum’s ejection and officiating frustrated the Celtics. Williams missed his only two shots, then didn’t play in the next game against Cleveland at all, a decision Joe Mazzulla explained as motivated by matchups, including Boston’s desire to not switch as often defensively. Instead, Mike Muscala logged minutes in the drop while Al Horford played at the four. A frustrated Williams watched from the bench, without his usual jovial expressions or celebrations.

That DNP-CD heightened the biggest story of the closing weeks of this Celtics regular season. Williams — a 27.0 minute per game player this season — last sat while healthy in 2020-21 before the loss to Cleveland. The next day, he opened a basketball court in Jamaica Plain, leading dribbling drills with children, which helped him get his mind off his recent play. He returned to an optional shootaround before Friday’s game against the Nets and fired up three after three, sprinting from corner-to-corner and catching passes from assistant coach Ben Sullivan.

“It’ll pass,” Blake Griffin told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog after Wednesday’s win over the Blazers where Williams didn’t play until late in garbage time. “He’s too important to our team. I think we’re trying out some lineups and you feel for him, he’s a great teammate, he’s a great guy to have in the locker room and great player for us. You just stay on. We’re gonna need him in the playoffs in a big way in every series, so it’s probably hard for him to see that, but I think his teammates all value how good he is.”

Williams once proved valuable beyond matchups or scheme, becoming a borderline starter last year through Robert Williams III’s injuries and Al Horford’s rest. He hit 41.1% from three and scored the rest of his baskets at the rim, while finishing among the top-10 of most switchable defenders before keying defensive game plans against Milwaukee and Miami.

That changed in the NBA Finals when Golden State’s own switching neutralized his ability to even attempt shots. Williams vowed to never become a player who gets benched again after the series, but his 12-for-14 start to this season, featuring successful attacks on closeouts, got him caught in the in-between. A January win over the Hornets saw him shoot 1-for-8 in the lane, recalling Ime Udoka’s calls for him to narrow his focus on offense to stretching the floor. No one would fault Williams for expanding his game, but there is something to be said for being the best version of himself, and at the start of the season, Williams was trying to be a little more than a 3&D specialist.

“It’s respect to the shooter, something I’ve never dealt with in my life,” Williams told CLNS/CelticsBlog in Miami that month. “I’m excited to continue to get better with it … sometimes the adjustment is shoot the ball, shoot the ball with confidence, and then when guys fly at you, just make the right read, whether it’s pass it, move it, be aggressive and drive it. Today, I feel like I was in that in-between stance a lot, so rather than making sure you made the right read every time, I didn’t necessarily do that.”

Mazzulla looked elsewhere after Williams shot 39.4% from the floor for three months, both for offense that fits his high three-point volume system and defense after Williams struggled in 44 minutes to contain the Knicks’ Julius Randle. The decision to funnel Williams’ minutes to Sam Hauser, Blake Griffin and Mike Muscala took time, debate and could change going forward. It’s a gamble, too, potentially losing one of the more stable rotation hands in last year’s playoff run while Robert Williams III sits injured.

Hauser — shooting 47.1% from three since February began — faced his own two-month slump which lead to reduced minutes in January, but he bounced back from it.

Mazzulla said nothing Williams did specifically led to his recent demotion. The signs show statistically though, Williams producing fewer threes per game (3.6) than Hauser (4.0), increasing his allotment of shots from 3-16 feet from 20.4% to 25.7% of his shots, and only hitting 46.9% from 3-10 feet and 33.3% from 10-16.

His three-point share remains the same, while his efficiency fell to 36% 3PT since Dec. 13 — the league average. Williams took zero shots at Houston in eight minutes. Hauser tried six, making one in the loss.

The greatest risk comes when inevitable opponents like New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami arrive in the playoffs, pulling Williams back into action if Hauser, Muscala and Griffin can’t produce. Hauser draws ample isolation attention from offenses, though he’s prevented scoring in those spots as effectively as Williams this year, allowing 0.95 points per possession (49th percentile) to Williams 0.93 PPP (53rd perc.).

Griffin and Muscala, who hasn’t played consistently since arriving from Oklahoma City, mostly drop at center, which sets the Celtics up to play smaller if Williams stays phased out. His elbow injury could also play a role. Williams hasn’t appeared on the injury report since before the All-Star break and refused to make the ailment known as an excuse in Milwaukee. That night saw Williams over-dribble in the wing on the pivotal play at the end of the game. Mazzulla later said he and White should’ve shot on the play that helped decide a crucial loss in the East standings.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to disclose it all,” Williams said. “It’s something that, I guess you could say, just bending the arm stuff, but I’ve still gotta shoot it ... I’ve always told myself I can play through everything. It’s not an excuse.”

Teammates voiced support for Williams in recent weeks, telling him to continue working and not grow concerned with what might amount to experimentation. Derrick White led by example by supporting any role Mazzulla places him in while the head coach emphasized how important of a role humility plays as the team grows healthier.

Free agency looms for Williams this summer, adding its own difficult layer and after Griffin thrived in Saturday’s win over the Hawks, a more telling wave of praise fell over one of Williams’ competitors for playing time. Griffin came to Boston and sacrificed to fit in. However, it was Griffin that again came to Williams’ defense.

“You’ve just gotta play,” Griffin said, assessing Williams’ situation. “I’ve never been a guy that thought about my next contract. I don’t know how guys do that, but it can, but you can also let it not let it affect you and you can rise to that occasion and Grant’s one of those guys that can do that.”

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