BOSTON — Prior to this series, Grant Williams had never made more than eight 3-pointers in a game. He never had more than six. He never led the Boston Celtics in scoring. All of those things changed in Sunday’s NBA playoffs.
“Grant earned us a playoff game tonight,” Jayson Tatum said. “Game 7.”
Williams had a career-high 27 points and Tatum had 23 as the Celtics dominated the TD Garden with a 109-81 second-half victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston needed a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 5 to win Games 6 and 7, giving the Bucks a 3-2 lead. But in Game 6 against Milwaukee, the Celtics widened the gap at the last minute, and in Game 7, the Celtics used a 3-pointer to open the distance to the Bucks.
Celtics set new playoff team record with 22 3-pointers, Williams tied NBA record for most 3-pointers with 7 in Game 7, tying him to Stephen Crowley Lee (twice) tied with Marcus Morris.
Williams’ previous career high was nine 3-pointers in a single game — which he set in Game 2 of the series. He doubled that tally with 18 3-pointers in Game 7, breaking the NBA record for Game 7 held by Curry.
In the process, it earned him a new nickname of Jaylen Brown.
“Call him Grant Curry now,” Brown said.
The Bucks’ defense is designed to protect the paint and force other teams to hit 3-pointers. In Game 7, the strategy was to leave Williams open. Bucks center Brook Lopez assigned Williams to the wing early, and he let Williams take any breakthrough Brown and Tatum wanted on the wing.
“That’s what they gave us,” Brown said. “So we have to keep passing the ball and he’s open. We believe in all of our players, Grant is a good shooter. He passed.”
Williams hit his first 3-pointer at the start of the game but missed five of his next six attempts. But his team and his coach kept telling him he needed to shoot if he was open.
“I told him to let it fly,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “They disrespected you more tonight than they did earlier in the series. That’s their plan for him and others to really change and have them try to beat us. You saw that on the first one he made.
“I basically said shoot. What else can you do? Stop rushing into the crowd. Shoot the shots they give you.”
After giving up a couple of open shots in the second quarter, their words started to stick.
“It’s hard to get into your head when your whole team, like 15 guys, comes up to you and says go ahead and shoot,” Williams said. “Like, they’re encouraging it, so like, might as well take advantage of everyone.”
Williams didn’t enter the NBA as a three-point shooter. In fact, he made just 15 3-pointers in his final season in Tennessee and only 30 in his career as a volunteer.
As a rookie, he shot 25 percent from three, but improved to 37.2 percent last season. This year, he has improved his field goal and field goal percentage, averaging 41.1 percent from the field and 3.4 attempts per game.
But against the Bucks, Williams struggled in Game 2, going 2-for-14 from the field over the past four games.
That’s why Milwaukee decided to keep him open in Game 7. Unfortunately for the Bucks, that strategy backfired.
“He played,” Tatum said. “He played great. In the playoffs, you need that. You need guys coming off the bench to be the stars of their roles.”
Boston went 22-for-54 from 3-point range, while the Bucks struggled, going 4-for-32 from the field.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s the largest 3-point margin in Game 7 in NBA history and is tied for the largest 3-point margin in the playoffs (Golden State’s Game 6 in 2016). 3 points against Oklahoma City with 21) in the Western Conference Finals).
In the series, Boston made 110 3-pointers — third in the playoff series — and Milwaukee made just 57. It’s also the largest 3-point gap in a two-team series in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Despite the 3-pointer, Williams had perhaps the most exciting performance of the night on defense in the fourth quarter, with the game almost in hand.
Boston led 94-73 midway through the final quarter, with Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis picking up the ball on the open field, and the only obstacle between him and the rim was Williams. Portis made a layup and Williams knocked it back.
When TD Garden broke out, Williams turned to throw a fist at the crowd.
“When I got the block, I was super excited, really, really excited,” Williams said. “Because throughout the years of your career, you’ll have moments of the opposite, and moments when you’ve hit a snag.”
Sunday’s victory also marked the first time the Celtics have won a series from a 3-2 deficit since the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. That year, the Celtics lost the Eastern Conference finals to the Detroit Pistons, and they hope to change that this year.
This is Boston’s fourth Eastern Conference finals appearance in the past six seasons. The first three games — including the 2020 game against the Miami Heat in Orlando, Florida — have all ended in losses.
Brown played on the first three teams, and he knows the hard work isn’t over.
“We still have a long way to go,” Brown said. “Whatever you have to do to keep your mind and body normal and ready to go. There are no excuses.”
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals is on Tuesday in Miami. Whether Williams attempted 18 3-pointers again should not be debated. Before continuing to praise Williams, Tatum received a message from Tennessee about the third-year forward.
“I told him not to get used to it,” Tatum said.
What Boston can get used to, however, is more playoff basketball.