Celtics coach Ime Udoka crafted an April Fools’ Day prank in which he and third-year forward Grant Williams staged a fight during practice.
They were both invested in the bit, and the players certainly believed it. But none stepped in to break it up. Later, Udoka said he overheard several say they stood down because they were hoping to see Williams get his butt kicked.
On this team, Williams is essentially viewed as the younger brother. He can be lovable and endearing in one moment, and kind of a pain in the next.
“His success, guys are happy for him, but it goes to his head at times, so they like to bring him back to earth,” Udoka said with a chuckle.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to stay annoyed by a teammate who does things like call press conferences just to stump for his teammates’ postseason award candidacies, as he did last month. Williams is even one of 12 finalists for NBA teammate of the year.
And on the court, he has emerged as an essential piece during Boston’s unlikely transformation into a title contender. That was apparent in the Celtics’ 114-107 Game 2 win over the Nets Wednesday night in their first-round playoff series.
With Boston reeling near the end of the first quarter, Williams entered the game and promptly drilled three 3-pointers. He also swatted away a Bruce Brown shot on the final play of the first half, sending Boston to the break with momentum.
“Our backs were against the wall a little bit in the first half,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “We had some trouble getting it going, and Grant made play after play.”
Williams was 4 for 4 from the field, 3 for 3 from the 3-point line, and 6 for 6 from the foul line, finishing with 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 32 minutes.
“It’s definitely satisfying, but something I know I’ll have to keep working with it,” Williams said. “One game doesn’t dictate a series, one game doesn’t dictate your performance in the playoffs. It’s about staying consistent and being a reliable guy. [Game 2] was that and I try to continue that way.”
Udoka was mostly a backup during his seven-year playing career, and he was called upon to play a physical style of defense and hit an open 3-pointer when it developed. He said he sees some similarities in Williams, and his trust in him is obvious. On Wednesday, he kept Williams on the court for the entire fourth quarter, as Boston outscored the Nets, 29-17, and rallied for the win.
Williams, who started his NBA career by missing 25 3-pointers in a row, connected on 41.1 percent of his attempts this season, second best on the team. At the start of the season, opponents essentially acted as if Williams did not exist, daring him to fire away as he pleased.
But after weeks and in some cases months of strong results, defenses began to adjust, and Williams provided a counterpunch, attacking closeouts by bulldozing toward the rim.
Still, the burly 6-foot-6-inch forward is most proud of his defense. He is sturdy enough to hold his ground against taller players and fast enough to keep up with quicker ones. He said that earlier in his career, opponents were not shy about hunting perceived mismatches against him. Now, he is not viewed as a weak link, and that’s a sign of respect.
“As the year went on, he has improved tremendously,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “His feel defensively. As an offensive player, knowing where he needs to be, the spots that he needs to shoot from, doing the things that we ask of him. And we ask a lot out of him, and he’s been great for us.”
Sure, he might be a bit of a loudmouth, but he’s the Celtics’ loudmouth.
“A guy that always is putting the team first,” Horford said. “Those are the kind of guys that you want around.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.