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All of a sudden, rookie Grant Williams had the Celtics’ fate in his hands

When Toronto's Fred VanVleet went up for a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 7, rookie Grant Williams was right there to deflect it and preserve the Celtics' victory.
When Toronto's Fred VanVleet went up for a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 7, rookie Grant Williams was right there to deflect it and preserve the Celtics' victory.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

As the Celtics and Raptors battled through three quarters of Game 7 on Friday, Grant Williams was unsure if he would have a chance to join the fun. The Boston rookie had not left the bench yet, but he knew that could change suddenly, even in a game with stakes as high as this one.

“It was a moment that I was supposed to stay ready for, prepare for,” Williams said, “especially for that team.”

Then, with 7:13 left, coach Brad Stevens told him to go play center against Toronto’s small-ball lineup. Williams had a solid six-minute stint before being replaced by Daniel Theis, but then Theis fouled out 11 seconds later, putting Williams back on the floor for the final 1:21 of the biggest game in Boston’s season.

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“I guess I had played well [in the series], and I went in, tried not to make mistakes, especially in pivotal moments like that,” Williams said. “It’s not about being the superstar or the hero. It’s about just doing things for the team to win. We got a lead, and that’s what I wanted to make sure we kept.”

Williams was focused on playing strong defense, grabbing some rebounds, and, well, not messing up. He knew he would not be a primary option on offense, so he didn’t really focus on that.

But with 35 seconds left and Boston clinging to an 89-87 lead, point guard Kemba Walker carved through the lane and faced a double team before slipping a pass to Williams under the hoop. Williams was fouled, and suddenly had to start thinking about offense after all.

“I was actually super confident going to the line: ‘Eh, it’s just two free throws,’ ” he said. "And then when I hit back rim, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s just a back rim.’ It was a good shot, looked good, felt good. And then I shot the next one to the same spot and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ I don’t ever remember a time I missed clutch free throws like that.”

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It could have been a disaster for the Celtics, but Jayson Tatum swooped in from beyond the arc and grabbed a rebound and was fouled.

“I was like, ‘Thank you, JT, for saving my career here in Boston,’ ” Williams said.

Moments later, though, the Celtics would thank Williams. Tatum hit the first free throw but missed the second, and the Raptors rushed upcourt with a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer.

Williams switched onto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet beyond the right arc. He swiped once for a steal, then retreated slightly and kept VanVleet in front of him. When VanVleet rose for a potential game-tying shot, Williams jumped with him and deflected it. The ball never reached the rim. Over the course of about 15 seconds, Williams had completely flipped his narrative for the night.

“It all worked out in the end, and we’re moving on to the Eastern Conference finals, which, as a young kid from Charlotte, N.C., I didn’t know if I’d be here," he said. "It’s a special moment.”

With Williams on the court in these playoffs, the Celtics have outscored opponents by an average of 11.1 points per 100 possessions, the top net rating on the team among players who have appeared in every game. His 95.9 defensive rating is 5.1 points better than first-team all-defense selection Marcus Smart.

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On offense, Williams has provided a bit of an unlikely lift. He started his NBA career by missing 25 consecutive 3-pointers, and even a mild hot streak could only pull his regular-season average up to 25 percent. But in these playoffs he is 8 for 12 from beyond the arc, settling in for open opportunities from the corners as Boston’s dynamic offensive weapons command attention.

“He’s not even a rookie anymore the way he plays, the way he sees the game, the way he comes in and brings the energy,” Smart said. “He’s so comfortable. His confidence through [the Raptors] series has risen. He’s hit key 3s for us, he’s played great defense, and when he’s on the court he gives it 110 percent.”

Williams is unsure what his role will be in the conference finals against the Heat. He understands he might sit out one game and then be thrown into an essential role in the next. But he is sure that he’ll be ready for anything, and having experienced the pressure-packed moments of a Game 7 will only help.

“It’s definitely intense,” Williams said. “You look at the regular season, you have a couple of those games where you could say it’s playoff intensity. But when you have seven in a row, that’s something that you can’t really express or prepare for.

"It was actually enlightening to see how hard it is to not only win one game but also four games against another talented team.”

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. . .

Stevens said forward Gordon Hayward, who has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle in Game 1 of the opening-round series against the 76ers Aug. 17, did some light non-contact drills and individual work at Sunday’s practice session.

“I know he feels better,” Stevens said. “He’s worked hard to get to where he is and I think he’ll play at some point in this series. As far as predicting a timeline, I have no idea. But I feel like he’s made good progress and will play eventually.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.