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When Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks was ejected three minutes into Game 2 with a flagrant 2 foul, the daunting task of guarding the best shooter in the NBA, Steph Curry, partly fell on 20-year-old rookie Ziaire Williams. This was Williams’ first game back after suffering a minor knee injury during Game 5 against Minnesota in the first-round series, and he was up for the challenge.
“I just stay ready for whenever my name is called,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “I got a chance to watch film while I was out and that helped a lot as well. I’m just trying to be as dialed in as possible and do whatever I can to help get the W.”
Ja Morant put up an incredible performance, scoring a playoff-high 47 points in 41 minutes and took over offensive possessions in the last four minutes of the game, giving the Grizzlies the 106-101 win at home and tying the series, 1-1. After missing the game-winning layup in Game 1, Morant came out with a different mentality and found pockets in the defense and ways to score that seemed impossible. Morant scored the last 15 points for the Grizzlies to close out the game.
“Ja is one-of-a-kind. I’ve never seen a player like him before,” Williams said. “I’m just glad he’s on our team, and I don’t have to guard him because there’s no one in the league that can guard that man.”
“I love being in those moments and I love being the one to take those shots, and I just tell myself when the game is on the line, ‘Go get a bucket,’ ” Morant said after the game. “If they take what I want away, obviously I know I have guys on the floor that can make big-time shots for us.”
Morant found Williams when driving the lane, and Williams knocked down big shots in the fourth quarter. With under eight minutes to go in the game, Williams hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Grizzlies a one-point lead.
Defensively, Williams made things tough for Curry and successfully contested a couple threes from Klay Thompson off the switch late in the game. Curry and Thompson combined to go just 16 of 44 from the field and connected on only five 3-pointers between the pair.
“I’ve never played against a group of guys who move so well off the ball, especially Steph,” Williams said on guarding the all-time leader in 3-pointers. “You really have to be dialed in on him all the time. He’s going to make tough shots, it’s just how good of a player he is, so I just tried to move on to the next play and learn from it.”
Williams finished with 14 points (including four 3-pointers), five rebounds and was a plus-8 in 28 minutes off the bench. He averaged 15.4 points in the last five games of the season and is starting to find his role on this young, talented Memphis team.
“He came in and battled for us and hit some big shots,” Morant said of Williams’ Game 2 performance. “He forced Steph into some tougher shots. Obviously, Steph’s a hell of a player so he’s going to make some, but Ziaire played great defense. Coming off, not playing for a while, I felt like he took it upon himself to come out and be ready to play. Just seeing him work, day in and day out before this game, it was a big-time performance from my little brother.”
After being drafted 10th overall by Memphis in the 2021 draft, the 6-foot-9 guard had an up-and-down season and experienced the normal rookie growing pains. He went from playing 20 games during his one season at Stanford, to an 82-game NBA season. Williams missed 20 games this season with minor injuries and started 31 games when other players, like Morant, were sidelined.
“Every time I’ve had to sit out for something, I feel like I bounce back well because I get a chance to reevaluate myself and regroup and see everything that’s going on,” Williams said. “For me, personally, film has helped a tremendous amount and I just lock in to the little details to get better.”
Even with the ups and downs the regular season brings, Morant saw something special in Williams early. The confidence in the young rookie has continued into the playoffs and is apparent when Morant, or any of his teammates, kick the ball out for a deep shot late in the game.
“Ziaire’s been great for us, man. His future is bright,” Morant said. “I’ve seen it since Day 1. I know what he’s capable of, I’ve seen it. He just has to show everyone else.”
Every rookie player enters the NBA with dreams of making the playoffs and competing for a championship. For Williams, that time is now. He has risen to the occasion, guarding one of the best to ever play the game, and is an integral part to this Grizzlies team trying to make a deep playoff run.
Memphis will travel to San Francisco for Games 3 and 4, starting Saturday night in a Western Conference series that is turning into must-watch basketball.
“This is the playoffs. It’s a fight out there,” Williams said. “Both teams want that championship bad and it’s all about who wants it more. It’s a battle, and I’m going to stay ready.”