Williams steps up, handles pressure
"When I came back from China, I was at home for probably 2½ weeks, I didn't touch a basketball when I was at home," said Williams, the former lottery pick (11th overall, 2009 draft) who signed with the Guangdong Southern Tigers at the start of the 2012-13 season with no viable NBA option.
"Let's be honest, I ran, but I didn't touch a basketball. I don't know if you guys remember, I played in the Lakers game and I double-dribbled because I wasn't used to dribbling the ball again. That's why I carry my ball everywhere now. That's how it happened."
For the better part of the past two months, Williams has dribbled a basketball everywhere he goes. He dribbles through media scrums outside the Celtics' locker room before home games, through the lobby of the team hotel on the road, and just about everywhere in between. Then on Wednesday night, despite only 19 minutes of playoff experience, Celtics coach Doc Rivers enlisted Williams as one of only seven players who saw the floor in a win-or-go-home situation in this Eastern Conference first-round series at Madison Square Garden.
Williams chipped in four points, four rebounds and two assists, but -- most importantly -- didn't turn the ball over in 16 minutes, 49 seconds of floor time. What's more, he was plus-5 in plus/minus, the third-best number on the team behind only Jason Terry (plus-13) and Paul Pierce (plus-8).
"He controlled the ball," said Rivers. "He can handle the pressure and bring it up the floor. He got guys into our stuff. He allowed us to get organized. Sometimes you pull out a card. He was it tonight.
"We love his size, he was rebounding. What we are asking him to do is what he has never done before. And he is defending. Everybody told me he can't defend, but he's proving everyone wrong."
Williams, who really wasn't even a point guard until he arrived in Boston, admits it was a whirlwind start to his Celtics odyssey. A 6 a.m. text message from his agent set it all into motion as he joined the team on a 10-day contract in late February, and he recalled running out of clean clothes by the time the team elected to sign him for the remainder of the season.
Despite inconsistent playing time in Boston, including a DNP -- Coach's Decision in Game 1 of this series and a total of 8½ minutes of court time in Games 2 and 3, Williams has remained confident and ready.
"It sounds cliché, but I know how to play basketball," he said. "The one thing I've learned from being here, and from Doc every day, is to be ready."
The Celtics have turned the ball over 84 times in five games (16.8 per game) this series. They own both the worst turnover percentage (18.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.05) of any team in the postseason.
Williams played nine second-half minutes Wednesday, including three minutes in the final quarter (all while top-unit point guard Avery Bradley, who has looked overwhelmed by ball-handling duties at times, sat out the fourth frame). The Celtics are starting to trust Williams, particularly as he shows he can use his size to provide steady defense against the likes of Raymond Felton, who has torn Boston apart in the pick-and-roll this series.
But it's the ball-handling that makes Williams so valuable at the moment.
"With his size and athleticism, he's a great ball-handler," said Jeff Green. "He gives us another ball-handler, which is great. You can't pressure him because he can jump; he's athletic and has a good pull-up jumper. With the minutes he played tonight, that was big for us. His rebounds were big. He came in and did his job, and that's what we need from our bench."
Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who endured a team-high five turnovers (matched by Kevin Garnett) as New York continues to relentlessly trap Boston's veterans, has taken notice of Williams' composure in pressure spots.
"He's given us some real solid minutes," said Pierce. "He's showing the poise in big-game situations at the point guard [position], where we're asking him to come in, run our offense. He hasn't been rattled. He's been playing terrific defense. Just playing under control.
"Most of the time, when you see guys in their first playoff moments, they're a little anxious, they rush a lot. But you don't see that in him. He has the poise of a veteran when he's out there and he's given us great minutes every game."
Williams missed three of the five shots he put up Wednesday, but some of that blame falls on late-clock situations where he was simply the last person with the ball. Williams knows he's more likely to generate points going at the basket, using his size and athleticism while attacking smaller defenders.
Asked by a New York reporter to explain his journey to Boston, Williams playfully responded, "Man, you know how long ago that was? Where have you been?"
Yup, it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then Williams was just a double-dribbling import looking to stick around. Now he's a vital ball-handling presence as the Celtics try to make history by rallying from a 3-0 deficit. Now the Knicks own only a 3-2 edge as the series shifts back to Boston for Friday's Game 6.
Williams, who started to leapfrog fellow reserve guards Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee at the end of Sunday's Game 4, admitted he didn't know for sure his role would increase on Wednesday.
But it all goes back to being ready. He wasn't ready back in February when the long layoff back home led to his on-court ball-handling miscues. Now, he's prepared for anything.
Said Williams, "Every day, every game is a possibility."
Play Podcast ESPN NFL reporter Field Yates covers expectations for Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' outlook, LeSean McCoy's injury and Alex Smith's contract negotiations with the Chiefs.
Play Podcast Buster Olney and Justin Havens discuss how teams that made major deals have fared since the deadline. Plus, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer on the strange circumstances caused by weather.