MINNEAPOLIS — The past few weeks have been challenging for Celtics forward Grant Williams. His role has been reduced considerably, and he has struggled during his rare opportunities.
He has tried to maintain perspective. He is still an NBA player, after all. Things could be much worse. But it’s not always easy.
“I try my best to false-front in a way,” Williams said. “It’s funny, because I’ll be the first one off the bench [supporting others] and high-fiving and everything. Teammates will be like, ‘We see you’re dying inside, but you’re doing your best to make sure that everyone else is taken care of.’”
But from top to bottom, the Celtics have insisted that they will need Williams to thrive in important spots as this season rolls on. On Wednesday night, even as his jump-shot remained off, even as the Celtics were frittering away yet another double-digit lead, Williams was back on the court to help the Celtics try to squeeze out a win against the Timberwolves.
And in the final seconds, he was critical. First, with Boston clinging to a two-point lead, he grabbed an offensive rebound and tumbled to the ground with it, eventually leading to a jump ball. Then the 6-foot-6 Williams faced a more sizable challenge against the 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert, and he won the tip anyway, helping Boston escape with a 104-102 win.
“I know Grant hasn’t had it easy,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “It’s been a rough one for him. But I’m proud of him and I’m glad that he’s on our team.”
The win was hardly perfect for the Celtics. They led by 14 points in the third quarter and 9 with six minutes left in the fourth before they began to unravel. They were just 5-5 since the All-Star break, with several puzzling losses. The most recent was Monday’s setback against the 16-win Rockets.
Another collapse would have raised major questions about this team’s playoff hopes that once appeared exceedingly bright.
“This was one of those moments,” forward Jaylen Brown said, “where we need a little bit of urgency.”
For the second game in a row, Brown took the lead in providing it. He followed up his 43-point effort against Houston by scoring 15 of his 35 during the fourth-quarter against the Timberwolves.
Brown, who is still wearing a mask to protect his fractured cheekbone, took an inadvertent shot to the face from Gobert during the first half. He received a technical foul for making his frustrations known, but then got revenge in more productive ways.
“He’s just giving us an extra layer of offensive firepower than even he usually does,” Mazzulla said of Brown.
Brown’s strong play has offset the continued shooting struggles of All-Star forward Jayson Tatum, who missed all eight of his 3-point attempts Wednesday and is 2 for 18 from deep over the last two games. His last miss, a contested step-back against the never-ending arms of Gobert with 46 seconds left, was nearly fateful.
The Timberwolves rushed upcourt, trailing by 2, and Anthony Edwards launched a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left that would have given Minnesota its first lead since the first half. But it caromed off the rim.
Williams, meanwhile, was still thinking about Tatum’s miss.
He thought he should have grabbed the rebound. And he told himself this time that if he didn’t shoot the ball, he was going to bulldoze toward the rim and find a way to gobble up a missed shot. When Smart’s 3-pointer clanked off the rim with 10 seconds left, Williams was the only Boston player in the paint, with four Timberwolves.
But he grabbed it anyway. He was instantly swarmed by three players and had the ball knocked away. He tried to call a timeout, and Mazzulla came sprinting onto the floor to do the same, but it was not granted, and a jump-ball was called.
By rule, players are not allowed to tip the ball until it reaches its peak, or at least close to it. But for years smaller players have tried to flip this into their own advantage by making the peak deceiving.
Williams squatted low in front of Gobert, exaggerating the massive size difference between them. And when the ball was tossed, he quickly sprung up and tapped it to an empty corner of hardwood. The ball had hardly risen above Gobert’s head.
“I was trying to jump inside-hand and try to smack it towards the corner because no one was there,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Time will fly, clock will run’ … Even my head, if you look at it my head was at Rudy’s elbow the entire time. It was funny.”
Tatum chased down the loose ball and his free throws stretched the lead to 4 with just 1.7 seconds to play. The Timberwolves were frustrated by the officiating throughout the night and Kyle Anderson and Edwards were both ejected following the ensuing timeout.
No, it was not a resounding win for the Celtics. But they are not in position to be picky right now.
“They threw everything at us and we held them off,” Smart said. “So, that’s a big win for us, especially what we’ve been going through.”