Celtics

Here’s why Grant Williams was a ‘hero’ for the Celtics vs. the Nets in Game 2

"He's been unbelievable this year."

Grant Williams
Grant Williams raises his arms to the cheering crowd after he hit a 3 versus the Nets. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A three-second clip of Grant Williams guarding Kevin Durant in the first quarter during the Celtics‘ Game 2 win over the Nets summed up pretty succinctly why Williams has been so essential to their success in the first two games of the first-round series.

The Celtics have explicitly made it their goal to guard Durant aggressively. Fouls will be called, and that’s fine (although not preferred obviously) — Ime Udoka seems willing to sacrifice trips to the free-throw line if it means Durant can’t get into a groove.

Through two games, nobody has been more physical than Grant Williams. Durant — perhaps understandably — is sick of it.

On Wednesday, Williams was hailed as a “hero” of Game 2 by Jaylen Brown after scoring 17 points on just four field-goal attempts — an eye-popping beacon of efficiency.

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“Grant was obviously much needed when we were a little stagnant or a little erratic early in the game,” Udoka said. “He kept us in it in the first half.”

“He’s been unbelievable this year,” Payton Pritchard added.

But Williams did a lot more than just make shots for the Celtics. A closer look at his contributions reveals why a player who averaged just 7.8 points per game this season commanded 26.5 minutes per game in the Celtics’ first two playoff contests.

Here are four other things Williams did in Game 2 that made an enormous impact.

He’s a great screener

An odd thing about setting great screens is that usually a “great screen” is one that skirts the legal line just enough to be useful.

Williams is excellent at skirting that line. In pick-and-roll settings, he has great timing either rolling or popping to the 3-point line. He’s not a finisher like Rob Williams in the pick-and-roll, but he still provides gravity even when he doesn’t touch the ball — at one point in the first quarter, he beat Andre Drummond badly and forced Kevin Durant to rotate, which led to an open jumper by Al Horford.

Williams also has a tendency to remove opponents entirely from the play with his screens. A few possessions after indirectly freeing Horford, he essentially pushed Nic Claxton away from the play — allegedly rolling, but mostly running a perfect moving screen — which allowed Brown to attack Kyrie Irving.

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Screening legally means standing in the right place. Screening effectively means cheating the system. Grant Williams is pretty good at the former and very good at the latter.

He’s active boxing out

Boxing out is far from the flashiest basketball play, but Williams does it strategically, especially on the offensive end. His box outs sometimes serve the dual purpose of preparing him for a potential offensive rebound as well as clearing the lane for a teammate (similar to the way Daniel Theis used to screen for Jayson Tatum around the basket, except a little more subtle).

On the other end, Williams isn’t particularly tall or bouncy, but he is very strong. His box outs tend to keep players glued to their spots, which makes life easier for teammates like Theis and Horford.

He’s versatile and hyper-engaged defensively

After he was selected by the Celtics in the 2019 draft, Williams drew some comparisons to Marcus Smart defensively for his versatility and his tendency to make intangible winning plays.

Those intangible benefits crop up most notably on the defensive end under the microscope. We touched on Williams’ effect on Durant above, but it bears repeating that for lengthy stretches — especially in the first half — Williams was the primary defender on the Nets’ superstars, and absolutely nobody is better suited to defending Durant so aggressively that it takes him out of his game. When Williams guards a lesser opponent, he has a great feel for when to start floating around the paint as a free safety.

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“Honestly, it’s kind of cool to be able to say from the progression I’ve had in my career,” Williams said on Thursday. “I remember my rookie year, guys used to call me up and kind of isolate against me. And I kind of got better throughout the year, and then now it’s like, that thing that’s the biggest thing: Being able to defend.”

He gets under opponents’ skin.

We’ll see whether this will remain a positive, but Williams’ hyper-aggressive defense seems to enrage opponents. If the Celtics get into a rock-fight series, Williams is going to make someone very angry.

His teammates might understand, to an extent — Tatum and Brown in particular talk about Williams like a little brother. But they all seem to enjoy him, and they certainly recognize how much value he brings when he’s on the court.

“His feel, defensively, [and] as an offensive player knowing where he needs to be, the spots that he needs to shoot from, doing the things that we asked of him,” Horford said, when asked about Williams’ contributions. “And we ask a lot out of him, and he’s been great for us. Just his physicality, he’s a smart player.

“It’s been good to be able to get to know him off the court as well. A guy that always is putting the team first. Those are the kind of guys that you want around.”

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