After two-straight dominant performances, the Boston Celtics faltered on Friday night, dropping Game 3 of their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
Boston’s rebounding troubles took center stage as Atlanta nabbed 11 offensive boards. And following a couple of rough showings, Trae Young put on a parade for his home crowd, exploding for 32 points.
A rough second half from Jayson Tatum and a poor shooting night for Jaylen Brown contributed to an ugly loss for the Celtics, but a major bright spot also appeared as Grant Williams earned his first minutes of the series.
“You got to stay prepared for the moment,” Williams said post-game. “[Assistant coach] Tony [Dobbins] walked up to me and said I was in, so I just tried to do whatever it took to help my team win.”
As soon as Williams entered the game, he made himself known. Standing in the corner–an area of the court he’s become synonymous with–Williams immediately nailed a three off of a Malcolm Brogdon assist.
GRANT WILLIAMS STAYS READY! pic.twitter.com/2wECxCswBD— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 21, 2023
Williams ran back on the other end, but he wasn’t done. Switched onto Bogdan Bogdanovic, Williams lowered himself into a defensive stance, cut off Bogdanovic’s pass, and leaped up in the air for a steal. He even added a drawn charge to his in-game resume, doing a little bit of everything to help Boston push forward.
“When I got subbed in, I just tried not to mess up their flow and did what I was told to do,” said Williams.
He finished the night with 14 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field—all three-point attempts. The performance was highlighted by a step-back three at the end of the third quarter, which cut Atlanta’s lead to seven. At the time, it gave them momentum heading into the final frame as they attempted to mount a comeback.
BIG shot Grant Williams pic.twitter.com/JC0dVo2bIx— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 22, 2023
It’s been an up-and-down season for Williams. Starting with his contract negotiations before the year began to his early successes and late-season struggles. With Sam Hauser’s hot streak to end the year, seeing him displace Williams in the playoff rotation may not have surprised many.
But it did come as a surprise to Williams.
“No, I didn’t,” Williams said when asked if he knew he would be out of the rotation in Games 1 and 2. “But that’s something that you don’t expect to hear. You’re just a player in a situation. You don’t try and coach. You just try your best to focus on what you can control.”
Through the first two games, Williams could be seen on the bench maintaining his usual energetic persona.
“When I didn’t play, [I was] just trying to keep the same attitude I would if I was,” said Williams. “Just trying to cheer on my teammates and bring energy. And the same in Game 2.”
Boston’s loss caused Williams’ big game to end on a sour note, but his game cannot be understated. Including the break before the playoffs and each two-day break between the games in the first round, Williams hadn’t earned playing time since April 9–a 12-day break. And that includes the less-than-six minutes he played in Boston’s last game of the season.
And yet, when his number was called, he picked up the phone and delivered.
“We talk about that all the time. One of the strengths of our team this year is, regardless of [the situation], guys are always ready to play,” said Mazzulla. “So, it says a lot about him being ready to play, and I think things like that help a team in a playoff run.”
With Atlanta earning a win, the Celtics are now up 2-1 in the series and could have a chance to close things out at TD Garden if they win out. But Williams’ performance means more than that.
His defense will be a necessary commodity if Boston gets the chance to take on the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in later rounds. If he’s shooting well from deep and keeping his confidence up, it will make it a lot easier to keep him in the regular rotation.
In the meantime, Williams isn’t worried about playing time. He’s got his eyes set on bigger goals.
“You just try to stay positive,” Williams said. “The biggest thing is just making sure that you are focused on the ultimate goal of winning a championship. Making sure that you’re caring for your teammates. Showing that love for them. That was my biggest thing. I don’t want my situation to affect what this team is doing.”