Based on body type, Grant Williams might seem like an unlikely dead-eye shooter. In another era of NBA basketball, there’s no way an oak-tree-thick bruiser would be asked to conduct his business 22- to 23-feet, 9-inches from the basket. But in today’s NBA, Williams inhabits the arc.
The 3-point line was Grant’s Arc on Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at TD Garden. Three by three the Celtics, led by seven from Williams, used the arc to sail to a 109-81 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks and an Eastern Conference Finals date with the Miami Heat.
One of the most coveted species in the NBA is the 3-and-D player who can lock up opponents defensively and stretch the floor offensively. Williams, who shot just 29 percent from three during his college career at Tennessee and attempted 103, has evolved into a primo 3-and-D guy.
Fueled by Williams’s career-high 27 points, the Celtics gave 3-and-D another definition, as in three-point deluge-and-done for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending NBA champions. The Celtics shot the Bucks into oblivion, connecting on 22 of 55 threes (40 percent). Williams led the Celtics in scoring for the first time in his career with a 7 for 18 3-point outing that couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
“Grant played great tonight. He took more shots than anybody on the team. I think that’s a first. … I told him don’t get used to that,” said Jayson Tatum, who shot 5 of 9 from three on his way to 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists.
“But, obviously, tonight we needed it. He came up big. He played amazing. In the playoffs, you need that. You need guys … to be a star in their role. Grant won us a playoff game tonight, a Game 7.”
The stocky forward’s sharpshooting wasn’t a fluke. He knocked down 41.1 percent of his threes during the regular season. In Game 2, Williams notched his previous career-high of 21 points, connecting on six threes in nine attempts.
Game 7 was his unanticipated encore. He had struggled lately, losing his shot and crunch-time minutes.
Following Game 2, Williams shot 2 of 14 from three and scored 20 points, including two total in Games 5 and 6.
He had a justifiable excuse as a primary defender of Antetokounmpo, akin to trying to hold back the ocean at high tide. Williams picked the perfect time to rediscover his range.
“I’ve worked on my shot enough to be able to knock those downs and be confident enough to shoot it,” said Williams. “I think my teammates know if I get 18 of them I’m going to make 40 percent of them at least.”
Successful launches run in Williams’s family. His mother is an electrical engineer for NASA. Orbiting the 3-point arc is how Williams helped engineer the Celtics’ fourth trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 2017, setting a Game 7 record for 3-point attempts. He eclipsed the mark of a more famous shooter who calls Charlotte, N.C., home, Steph Curry. The power forward also tied Curry’s record for Game 7 makes, also held by Marcus Morris.
“He came through for us. We call him Grant Curry now,” said Jaylen Brown.
Sunday was a far cry from the last Game 7 at the Garden, the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals when the Green clanged their way to a loss to Cleveland with a 7-for-39 3-point performance.
It was Milwaukee that couldn’t find the range in a must-win game, missing 18 of its first 21 threes on the way to 4 for 33 overall. The Bucks bricked their way to a combined 11 for 62 from 3-point range (17.7 percent) the final two games.
The three ended up as the tipping point in this series. In their four wins, Boston shot 41 percent from three and 32.5 percent in their losses.
Only the Miami Heat allowed more 3-point attempts this season than the Bucks. Part of their defensive philosophy is to force the other team to shoot threes. Boston made sure it backfired with Williams left open.
“I told him him let it fly. They’re disrespecting you more tonight than earlier in the series,’' said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “That was the plan on him and other guys, really shifting and making them try to beat us.”
Williams set the tone for the day when he drilled Boston’s first shot of the day, a three from the left corner. But the Celtics actually couldn’t shoot straight in the first quarter, going 7 for 24.
Luckily, Tatum picked up where he left off from his 46-point tour de force in Game 6. He was 5-8 and 4 of 4 from three for 17 points in the first half. However, with the teams knotted at 40 and 2:28 left in the half he picked up his third foul on a charge, a call the Celtics quixotically challenged.
Williams ended Milwaukee’s last lead of the game, draining a three from above the break to put the Celtics up, 45-43, with 51.9 seconds left in the half.
The Celtics were fortunate to lead 48-43 at the half – in more ways than one. The officials awarded Marcus Smart three free throws with 0.9 seconds left when he was fouled by Giannis trying to get off a half-court heave.
Celtics fans no doubt saw the free throws as payback for the controversial non-shooting foul call Smart drew in Game 3. But this call was one of several dubious pieces of officiating from Kane (and Unable) Fitzgerald.
A key juncture came when Tatum was whistled for his fourth foul with 7:44 left in the third and the Celtics up by 10. But Boston actually expanded its advantage without Tatum.
Williams netted half of Boston’s 16 points with Tatum on the pine. He drained his sixth three (in 13 attempts) from the left side with 2:12 left in the third to provide the Celtics their largest cushion to date (76-60), putting three fingers to his lips
The Celtics poured it on in the fourth, turning it into the Boston Three Party with everybody getting into the act, but Williams was the hoops headliner.