Grant Williams, Celtics fend off 76ers late on Joel Embiid’s MVP night

PHILADELPHIA — Jaylen Brown has seen a lot of crazy things in her time. He was just standing there when Gordon Hayward broke his ankle landing from an alley in Cleveland five years ago.

Brown once somersaulted back from the edge and landed on top of his head. Just a few months ago, Jayson Tatum broke his face.

But Brown had never seen anything like it.

“When I saw Grant being stepped on by a 300-pound individual, seeing that live was crazy,” Brown said. “Seeing that in real time was probably the craziest thing I’ve seen on a basketball court.”

Brown’s face was right there, staring at the close range stomping.

“I was like, damn, I really got stomped!” Williams said Athleticism. “I got stepped on a bit, but it wasn’t intentional. It’s the playoffs, so you expect battles like this. You expect to bleed, you expect to be elbowed. It’s not new. So for me, it was just like, get back in the game as soon as possible.

Williams was a little giddy, as you’d expect when a human mammoth lands directly on your skull. He wasn’t sure exactly what happened as he dived for the stray ball, but he knew something was wrong.

“When I sat down on my knees I just saw blood pouring out and I was like, ‘Welp, I gotta get out,'” Williams said after the Celtics beat the 76ers 114-102 to take a lead 2-1 in the series. “So I ran around hoping I wouldn’t have to get stitches, then I just put on some Carmex and got it going.”

As a trainer went to work on Williams like a cut man in a heavyweight fight, James Harden eventually scored to make it a two possession game. So after a minute of playing time, Williams jumped to his feet holding a towel over his face and walked over to Joe Mazzulla.

“I said, ‘I’m fine’ or some bullshit like that,” Williams said. “Then I asked the doctors to check me out and I thought I was going to go back, so I ran up and kicked (Mazzulla) on the ass and said, ‘Yo’ and they said, ‘Sit down!’ I was like, ‘I’m ready!’ and they were like, ‘We know, just, like, wait.’ I was on the edge of the abyss, but it worked.

What did Mazzulla think when Williams was already asking to return to the game?

“He can handle it,” Mazzulla said.

“Hey man, I’m a little crazy, so it was okay,” Williams said. “I’m ready to go.”

As Williams returned there, to everyone’s surprise, Joel Embiid came to apologize. But he didn’t need it. Williams didn’t care. Everything was fine. Bloodshed is part of life when you’re a grinder like Williams.

“I didn’t really feel it until now, but my nose is a little swollen,” Williams said. “But I didn’t feel it in the game. He apologized and things like that. I know Joel. He’s a great player, a phenomenal player, always good intentions. It was just a game bang-bang and just wanted to make sure he knew I was good and we could move on.

Then Williams got in there, and from the very first possession he went down and defended Embiid at the high post. Even after nearly breaking his nose, he was putting him in the MVP comfort zone. He got the save on Embiid before the 7-footer beat him on the glass for the second chance point.

Williams’ job is not to win every moment. It’s to make Embiid uncomfortable every moment he’s on the floor. A kick wasn’t going to stop that.

“He accepted that challenge and put his life on the line,” Brown said. “You see his head smash on the pitch and you get up with a smile on your face, it’s Grant Williams.”

That layup was the only basket of the fourth quarter that Embiid scored outside of what was almost an awful time down 10 with 32 seconds left. Williams, Al Horford and just about everyone on the court managed to stop Embiid when it mattered most.

Williams’ teammates called him a true professional, going from barely playing against Atlanta to closing games against MVP and not missing a beat.

“Grant has been humble all year. It was hard for him. He’s a great part of our team,” Brown said. “We challenged him in different ways, and his level of maturity. The ability to play his role, to be able to raise his level and get saves and do what needs to be done, regardless of sometimes his emotions and his feelings and how he feels about certain situations. It’s like, man, you can’t ask for anything better than that.

Williams didn’t score a point on Friday, but they didn’t stop Embiid from taking over without him snacking multiple times throughout the night.

“Defensively we were just locked in,” Williams said. “There were a few games where we gave up offensive rebounds and opened 3s, but that happens in a game. So we can’t be perfect, but it was our priority to focus on defense to make sure they got to beat us.

They held the Sixers down just long enough for Tatum to put Tobias Harris on the left elbow and set him on fire three times in a row, putting the game to bed in the final two minutes.

“We just try to take pride in being great in defense but also keeping our pace and physicality in attack,” Williams said. “Tonight at the end of the game, JT did a great job taking hard shots and making the right decisions in attack.”

Before the game, Tatum was in the back of the house doing his pre-game routine while his friend Embiid gave a heartfelt MVP acceptance speech. They spend the summers working with their trainer Drew Hanlen. Tatum watched at a young age as Embiid started coming to their gym and progressing to the top of the league.

Then he understood what this moment meant. He had seen all the work, all the progress, all the fighting carried out by Embiid. It helped him recognize how close he was to achieving that same goal. That’s why when asked if he was planning on having one of these ceremonies one day, he had a simple answer.

“Hehehehehe, yeah,” Tatum said.

“The environment was electric tonight, wasn’t it? Tatum said. “He got his MVP trophy, you could feel the energy (who) as a competitor that you love being part of games like that.”

So when the game was on the line, that’s when he took over. He found the match he wanted, went to his place and cooked.

“He’s a star. He’s one of the top five players in the world and he showed that tonight,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “But he finished a tough game on the road in a hostile environment for us. That’s what superstars do.

This is where the Celtics potentially have the edge over the entire NBA. They have a team that can do the job all night long and then get Tatum to do a perfect arc on a nice game. He looked almost pissed that he barely got to play in their Game 2 blowout, leaving behind an ugly box score of an easy win. So, on a brutal evening where bodies were flying everywhere, he wanted to be the icing on the cake.

“Winning a championship is tough,” Tatum said. “So I heard.”

All he has to do is ask Grant Williams.

The Celtics are in place now, but that only makes it harder. The Sixers have shown they can respond to desperation. Embiid showed in Game 3 that he was only going from strength to strength. Game 4, perhaps his last chance to dazzle Philadelphia fans this year, will see him give it his all. So no matter how much Williams’ nose swells over the next 36 hours, he’ll be good to go.

“It’ll be fine. (It hurts. Whether it matters or not, it doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “But we play at 3:30 on Sunday. I’ll be good for that.

Williams returned to the fight as soon as they put him back together. He didn’t want to miss a moment against the MVP. Compete against the greatest players in the league and hold its greatest goal in this league.

And he knows it’s not easier. It’s the same reason his trainer isn’t the least bit happy after shutting down Harden and taking care of Embiid in record time. Getting closer to the finish line only makes the climb steeper against a truly competitive enemy.

So what does Mazzulla expect for a decisive Game 4 on Sunday?

“An absolute war.


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(Photo of Joel Embiid and Grant Williams after Embiid’s foot landed on Williams’ head Friday night: Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

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