To begin the season, Grant Williams looked like a much-improved player. Flashing developments in his off-the-dribble game, screening ability, dribble hand-off creation, and having the confidence to go to work in the post.
For a stretch, his decision to bet on himself heading into restricted free agency looked to be paying off, and questions began to surface regarding how much the Boston Celtics would be willing to pay him. Then, everything changed. Williams regressed. Sure, he hasn’t been awful, but the player we saw at the start of the season and the one we saw toward the end were two separate entities, separated by a vast gulf in poise and polish.
Everybody has a slump. The NBA season is long; you clock up thousands of air miles with very little rest and collect bumps, bruises, strains, and tears along the way. There isn’t a player within the Celtics rotation who hasn’t underperformed for a stretch this season; it’s part and parcel of playing in the league.
Yet, it would appear that Williams’ slump has been punished more than you would expect — especially as it’s cost him playing time to begin the postseason.
Last year, Grant Williams played a big role in helping the Celtics make the NBA Finals. This year, he can't get on the floor against the Hawks.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) April 26, 2023
He started the season flashing a ton of improvement, had a cold spell after the ASB, and now, what? Mazzulla doesn't trust him?
Right now, Sam Hauser has all but replaced the versatile forward in Boston’s playoff rotation. At first, glance, giving Hauser additional playing time against the Hawks makes sense. The sophomore sharpshooter can space the floor, score off the catch or via movement, and has become known for his inadvertent ability to take teams out of their offensive gameplan as they try to hunt him on mismatches.
However, Hauser, while reliable, has not made much of an impact. Yet, there has still been little sign of Grant Williams. Al Horford has been a target of Atlanta’s mismatch hunting, forcing Boston to switch to drop coverage and accept a barrage of mid-range attempts, yet still, there has been little sign of Grant Williams — a versatile forward who can switch, navigate screens, and provide solid help defense.
Instead, Mazzulla has tried minutes with Mike Muscala and Blake Griffin. During those experiments, Williams stayed glued to the bench.
Blake Griffin has been solid for the Celtics this season but this seems like an odd time to dust him off in this series.— Jay King (@ByJayKing) April 26, 2023
I get it. This current series doesn’t lend itself to the skillset Williams brings to the table, and at times, he could be susceptible to being hunted on the defensive end. Nevertheless, this is a player who was a stalwart in Boston’s run to the NBA Finals last season. A player who many views as the long-term replacement for Al Horford. And a player who can strike fear into defense when positioned in the corner waiting to catch and fire a three at a moment's notice.
And he can’t get minutes? Not even when the team looks devoid of answers and rhythm? Nope. Not buying it. Surely, Williams can play a role? He’s done it against teams that like to go small before, so what’s different now?
I, like many of you, have been a proponent of ‘he will get minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.’ But with a game six on the horizon and the Hawks have found a fresh lease of life, facing those team’s in the later rounds is not guaranteed.
Given the growing impact John Collins and De’Andre Hunter are having in recent games, wouldn’t it make sense to put Williams onto the court and see how he handles defending against Atlanta’s schemes? After all, when he was afforded some playing time in game three - Boston’s first loss of the series - Williams was impactful, energetic, and strong-willed — everything you want in someone coming off the bench.
Last season, Williams dubbed himself as ‘The Batman’ due to his exceptional defense of Nikola ‘The Joker’ Jokic. Yet, if we keep with that analogy, Joe Mazzulla must be enacting the role of Dr. Strange as he looks to keep Williams tied down as everything begins to burn down around him.
Or perhaps, Williams is somewhere in the mountains, searching out another round of training with Ra’s Al Ghul. Whatever comic book reference you want to use, the fact of the matter is Batman is missing in action, just as his city needs him. So, either he has been captured, Jim Gordon is missing, or the bat signal is broken — those are the only acceptable reasons as to why Williams has not seen the floor in four of the first five games.
The Celtics need to throw some different looks at Atlanta to regain the momentum in their series, so perhaps now is the time to see what Williams can do in place of Sam Hauser; after all, he is more experienced, versatile, and defensively sound. Mazzulla has been brave enough to experiment throughout this series, so let’s run this experiment back one more time. Who knows, it could be what helps win you the series.