MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.
“It’s the same as you get ready for anybody else,” Williams said after the Bulls' morning shootaround ahead of Game 2 of its first-round series with the Bucks. “First of all, don't be scared. I feel like a lot of people in this league are scared or nervous to guard guys like that (Antetokounmpo). Obviously he's good, he's a two-time MVP. But he puts his pants on the same way I do. Just knowing he is good, but he’s not God.”
This level-headed brand of confidence is exactly what the Bulls need from Williams as he takes the head of a help-heavy scheme against the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo tallied 27 points in Game 1, but the Bulls also goaded the Bucks star into foul trouble — which limited his playing time down the stretch — thanks to two drawn charges.
The question now becomes: Can Williams translate that mentality to the offensive end?
Williams played 23 minutes in Game 1 — his NBA Playoff debut — scoring five points, pulling down three rebounds and making 1-of-3 field-goal attempts. There were also four free-throw tries generated by a pair of strong drives. But Billy Donovan still noticed too many eschewed opportunities to attack.
“I think there were opportunities for him (Williams) to go, and he has to be able to do that,” Donovan said after the shootaround. “Whether it's taking a [3-pointer] or driving it, taking a pull-up or trying to get to the rim, just him attacking sometimes.”
This is an oft-repeated mantra, and the Bulls’ coach established in the regular season that playing time is not promised to the former fourth overall pick if he isn’t playing with the proper decisiveness. That’s especially true in the postseason, where every possession — and every missed opportunity — carries elevated stakes.
“Yeah. You go back, you watch the film, you see opportunities that you missed, some of the ones that you took, not only for me but for the rest of the team as well,” Williams said, agreeing with Donovan’s assessment that he passed up takable shot opportunities. “It's just kind of watch the film, come back and focus on it in Game 2.”
This is the teetering balance the Bulls are walking with Williams. While Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. are capable wing defenders, Williams is by far the most physically equipped player on the Bulls’ roster to check Antetokounmpo defensively, and he has flashed the ability to punish opponents by knocking down spot-up jumpers and driving closeouts at the other end. Williams needs to play — and play well — for his team to keep this series competitive.
However, as Donovan is quick to remind, Williams is also 20 years old and preparing for just his 14th game since returning in late March from the severe wrist injury that stole the majority of his second NBA season. He’s all-important to the Bulls’ short-term success, but is still on a game-by-game learning curve.
“People have to stop looking at the fact — and I get it, guy was the fourth player taken in the draft a year ago — we dealt with COVID, guy came off a wrist injury and he's 20 years old and this is his first playoff experience. These are going to be all learning and growing opportunities for him,” Donovan said of Williams. “He missed five months of growing [this season]. (Last season) at 19 years old, coming in as the youngest player in the NBA, he didn't even start for his college team and now we're throwing him out there against the best players in the world and people are saying: ‘Oh, be aggressive.’ It's going to be a process for him. He's going to have to learn.
“We have to keep pushing him and thrusting him into those situations as much as we can. But these are opportunities that he can learn and grow from. He’s not 27 years old. He's 20. And he obviously had a shortened season his rookie year and he missed five months this year. We all want him to be more aggressive, but these are opportunities where he's always going to do what's best for the team, and sometimes those situations for him are: ‘You know what, I don't feel like there's a shot for me. I feel like there's not an opportunity for me to be aggressive.’ And he has to watch film and learn from those situations.”
Indeed, Williams’ learning curve is exacerbated by playing on a team with three star-caliber offensive hubs in DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević. But picking his spots can’t turn into an evergreen state of deference.
“Clearly when you've DeMar and Zach and Vooch out there, he's no question trying to find his way,” Donovan added. “So how does he fit into that and how does he take opportunities to be aggressive? I think that that's really important. But he can't be a guy that's always deferring to them (the Bulls’ stars). That’s not good for our team and that's not going to be good for his growth either. So we have to keep thrusting him into it and keep pushing him into situations to try to be aggressive.
So, on Williams’ check list in his first playoff series: Guard a two-time MVP, maintain enough focus and energy to contribute more offensively and on the glass, and adjust to a level of postseason intensity that the second-year forward compared to the final two minutes of a closely-contested regular season game, but extrapolated to a 48-minute span.
“It's tough. But so is being in the NBA, so is being in the playoffs, so is getting to the playoffs,” Williams said. “It's tough, but our job is tough. This is a job for the best athletes in the world. It's tough, but I think it's definitely doable.”
So the Bulls hope.