With the series tied at 1-1, the Boston Celtics walked into Wells Fargo Center expecting a battle against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid had a full game under his belt following his return from injury, he was awarded the 2022-23 NBA MVP award on the court before the game, and the Philadelphia crowd was rocking.
Stopping Embiid is an impossible task, but slowing him down has been Boston’s main goal. They’ve shown their hands, done their best to defend without fouling, and sent double teams when needed.
In Game 3, the Celtics split duties on Embiid, with both Marcus Smart and Al Horford getting turns, but it was Grant Williams who took on the matchup for the majority of the contest.
“Embiid is the MVP. A big force. It’s going take a lot of us to try to contain him,” said Tatum. “You’re not going to stop him. And the things that Grant does don’t always show up in the stat sheet, but he’s extremely valuable to our team, and I think it showed tonight.”
Throughout his time in Boston, Williams has played an important defensive role. From center minutes in his rookie season to earning the Batman nickname for his defense against Nikola Jokic, he’s made his money by playing big on defense.
Against Embiid, he found similar success. Embiid obviously got his points, dominating from the mid-range and feasting on the glass, but Williams and the Celtics stalled him just enough to get the job done.
Even when that meant getting his head caved in.
“I saw Grant get his head stepped on by a 300-pound individual,” said Jaylen Brown. “And to see that live was crazy. I saw it in real-time. It was probably the craziest thing I’ve seen on a basketball court.”
Grant Williams after watching video of Joel Embiid stepping on him: “Dang, I really got curb stomped.”— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) May 6, 2023
After bodying Embiid in the post and slapping the ball away, Williams and Brown dove for it. Embiid followed. But while the two Celtics were on the ground, Embiid had nowhere to go, and as he was falling backward, he stepped on the back of Williams’ head, planting his face into the hardwood.
Williams immediately clutched his face and was eventually taken to the bench, where blood could be seen dripping down his face.
Yet just a few plays later, he was back in the game, guarding Embiid.
He didn’t even realize the severity of the incident until he rewatched the clip after the game.
“Dang, I really got curb-stomped,” said Williams.
A video quickly made the rounds on Twitter of Embiid apologizing to Williams following the play, but there were no hard feelings. “It’s the playoffs, brother,” Williams told Embiid. “It’s what we battle for.”
Williams doubled down on this stance post-game but admitted that his face isn’t feeling too hot.
“It happens, man,” said Williams. “He was falling backward, and I’m just thankful that he didn’t fully lean his weight onto it because he definitely got me pretty badly, but I think he felt that he landed on something, so he picked his foot up. It hurts a little bit.”
For Williams, this season has been a long one. A hot start quickly transitioned into a rough slump in the second half of the season. He was hesitating on the three-point line, turning the ball over when driving, and getting blown past on defense too easily.
To go through that following an offseason of fruitless contract negotiations brought a ton of stress. And with a new deal looming, the pressure to perform was at an all-time high. But he’s remained cool headed through it all.
“Grant has been great. Grant has been humble all year long,” said Brown. “It’s been tough for him. He’s a tremendous part of our team. And we’ve challenged him in different ways, in his maturity level, the ability to play his role, the ability to raise his level, and get stops, and do what is needed to be done regardless of sometimes his emotions and his feelings and how he feels about certain situations. You can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
In Boston’s first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, his playing time was scattered. A big-time showing in a Game 3 loss led to two-straight games of barely touching the court. He helped close things out in Game 6, but was never part of the regular rotation.
That all changed against the 76ers, as he’s been employed as a primary defender on Embiid.
Williams has remained an essential part of this Celtics team through all the criticism, slumps, and missed free throws. He’s willing to put his body on the line if it means getting a win. It’s just who he is.
“You see him get his head smashed into the court and get back up with a smile on his face—that’s Grant Williams,” Brown said.