“I’ll make them both. I’ll make them both. I’ll make them both.”
He only needed one to win, but in the face of an opponent trying to cut into his confidence, Grant Williams wanted to cancel any doubt he was master of his domain, which in this case was a Cleveland Cavaliers home court free throw line. The Boston Celtics forward stood there with less than a second remaining in regulation during last night’s contest. It was tied at the time, 109-109, and Williams had earned two tosses from the stripe.
He only needed one to win.
But Donovan Mitchell and his Cavs teammates needed him to miss both, and they acted like it.
First, Mitchell, the Cavs’ guard and top scorer, gave the universal “Get up” sign to the home crowd, who obliged and brought the volume in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse up precipitously. Mitchell then approached Willams, stood in front of him and, through some verbal artistry, challenged his fortitude in what was the very definition of crunch time.
By then, the Celtics had already blown a 15-point lead. In the previous two games, both losses, they watched 14- and 28-point advantages disappear, too. Their one-time hold of the top seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference over the Milwaukee Bucks had also recently slipped away.
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The pressure was already monolithic. Williams, a career 78.8-percent free-throw shooter, who during a slump just last week was benched for another affair against the Cavaliers, figured he’d add a little more pressure onto himself.
He only needed one free throw make to win, but he told Mitchell, “I’ll make them both” — times three, almost mantra-like, willing the outcome into reality.
He missed the first.
After Williams clanged the ball off the front of the rim, Cleveland, anticipating a second miss, made a lineup change to give them a better chance at a rebound and heave-ho try of their own from deep in their defensive end of the floor. The new Cavs five gathered inside the key, in front of Williams while he waited to receive the ball for another attempt — the one he now really had to make.
Then, Mitchell retreated to the wing and resumed his demonstrative call for noise, while the other four Cavs feigned confusion over where to line up. Guard Darius Garland invaded the key from the other wing, even though certainly a player with three years experience in the NBA knows only three opponents are allowed within it while someone takes a free throw. Fellow guard Chris LeVert, a six-year pro, also stepped in front of Williams, seemingly unsure on which side of the key he was supposed to be.
The pressure mounted some more. Williams calmly waited, hands on his hips.
But he’d already broken his promise to Mitchell — and himself. Then he broke it a little more with another miss.
The Celtics also missed a put-back attempt and went on to lose the game in overtime, 118-114.
Williams wasn’t the only Celtic who needed to save face last night. Head coach Joe Mazzulla said in his postgame press conference that losing games, even three in a row that featured late-game meltdowns, is part of a winning team’s journey. “I hate losing, but I understand it,” he said.
When asked by reporters how he engaged with Williams after his “excruciating” misses, Mazzulla said, “I told him I loved him.” He later added that he was confident Williams would bounce back. “We’re gonna need him,” Mazzulla said.
Hopefully for the Celtics, Mazzulla’s confidence in Williams brings better rewards than Williams’ confidence in himself.