Williams a chip off Sloan's block

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When I asked about the bad luck of it, he looked me up and down from the corners of his eyes. "Happens," he said without a shrug. "It happens."

This was one of the hard days in the world's funnest trade. There can be no fun in being injured. The pain turns the game into a hard job. You can note that the Utah Jazz are paying Williams $13.5 million to play in spite of the pain, but it's also true that he would receive that salary whether he played the following night or not. Others in his position would choose differently than him.

"Of course I want to play," he said. "It's the Celtics; I like playing in that arena. It's always a fun game to be part of. I'll have to see how my back feels in the morning."

On Wednesday morning, his back felt even worse. After his teammates walked through their morning pregame shootaround, Williams was worked over by a chiropractor for two hours. The chiropractor told him to stay on the move and keep his back limber. He spent the remaining afternoon on his feet as much as he could in hopes of playing that night against one of the best teams in the world. That night he dressed at his locker as if he was going to play all-out and then he walked stiffly across the court to test himself an hour and a half before game time, his left stride shorter than the right.

The Celtics assumed he would find the means to play.

"He's top two in the league, maybe No. 1," Boston coach Doc Rivers said of Williams' standing among point guards. "His shot is what sets him apart -- he's a great shooter. He plays at different speeds. He's the most powerful of the [point] guards -- him and Chauncey [Billups] -- but he does it at great speed, he doesn't turn the ball over.''

As Rivers looked ahead to the game against Utah -- tip-off was an hour away -- he talked about how Williams might have excelled in any era.

"I kid with [Rajon] Rondo all the time, no way he could have played in our era -- we would have beat the hell out of him," said Rivers, who ran the point for 13 NBA seasons through 1995-96. "The hand check was so important back then. They've taken that away, and that's what has brought back the small [point] guard. It's probably a good thing.

"But I wasn't a 'huge' point guard. Derek Harper, Alvin Robertson -- everyone was big back then, and slow for that matter. Now it's a quickness thing. But when you get a big point guard with quickness and speed, it makes him that much tougher. That's why Chauncey is so tough to guard, and Deron."

At 25 and beginning his fifth season, Williams has been enigmatic among the new era of NBA point guards. Their prominence has a lot to do with the new rules that prevent defenders from bumping and shoving and holding on the perimeter. Most teams now have -- or are seeking -- point guards with the explosive speed to exploit those open lanes into the paint, to drive the ball without fear inside and create defensive imbalances resulting in exciting offense around the basket. Williams has succeeded in utilizing those open spaces as well as anyone, but he doesn't exactly feel gratitude for the opportunities.

"They want high-scoring games, stuff that sells," Williams said. "That's why I think the game is called the way it's called now."

At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he has been blessed with old-fashioned NBA strength. Having grown up watching players of the '90s beat on one another, Williams was looking forward to mixing it up with the adults. But the game was already changing when Utah made him the No. 3 pick in the 2005 draft.

"When I was in college," he said, "and they were calling ticky-tack fouls, I was like, 'Oh yeah? When I go to the NBA, I'm going to be able to be physical.' Then I averaged about eight fouls in summer league."

His sense for sarcastic exaggeration is one of many traits Williams shares with his Hall of Fame coach, Jerry Sloan. They both take an old-time baseball approach to their work, as if they show up to the ballpark every day without ever growing too full of themselves or too depressed. Williams' expression rarely changes whether he's winning or losing.

"He's a terrific defender, he's got a lot of things he can do well," Sloan said of his young point guard, a member of the gold-medal Olympic team last year. "Not many people have the kind of athletic ability he has, and he's a strong guy. You remember Oscar Robertson? He was a strong guy, too.''

You remember him better than anybody, I told Sloan.

"I just remember I got beat every night," he said. "Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Hal Greer. I had to compete my butt off just to be in the game, that's all you can do."

Utah's backup point guard, Ronnie Price, had already been ruled out of the game against the Celtics because of an injured toe. What would Sloan do if Williams wasn't able to play?

"We just have to play," the coach answered. "You know, we can't call [the game] off."

The game began and there jogged Williams in Utah's dark road blues, dribbling the ball up the floor. On the same court an hour and a half earlier, he had emerged from his painful walk to make three jump shots for every four he attempted as assistant coach Scott Layden passed the ball out to him and counted (Four! Five! Six!) each of the consecutive makes.

"I was probably going to play the whole time," Williams would say with self-deprecation. "I just like talking. Any games I said I was going to sit out my career, I never did."

Williams would be good for 33 minutes with 13 points, seven rebounds (only backup forward Paul Millsap had more for Utah) and four assists against the Celtics. It wasn't as easy as he made it appear, and he surely didn't feel as healthy as he looked. But that sturdiness was lost on his teammates. They settled half-heartedly for jump shots, they surrendered 53.2 percent of the Celtics' attempts from the field, they yielded scores on Boston's opening seven possessions of the game and they lost 105-86 to stumble to 3-5 for the season.

"They made it look like we'd never played a game that difficult," Sloan said as he glanced down at the box score in his calloused farmer's hands. "The rough route is to stay in there, set screens and then defend better. And then the rest of it will come to you. If you're tough enough. If you're not tough enough, then they'll just keep burying you."

Williams was even more blunt in the postgame locker room.

"Right now, we're soft," he said. "There's no way around it. We're not tough at all. They were quicker to loose balls, they got down on the floor, they did the things that you have to do to win."

The irony is that the Celtics were quarterbacked by one of the new era point guards. Rondo is small and thin, a 178-pound guard of the type that Robertson or Sloan would have tried to push around back in the day. But Rondo doesn't play soft. He pushes the ball inside, he fights through screens and hops back up, he defends his ground. It was no more incongruous to see a skinny guard like him showing toughness than it was to see a lauded star like Williams fighting to play through his injuries. The rules change endlessly and the players appear to shrink, but the attributes of winning are the same today as they were 40 years ago.

Those timeless attributes are the reason Sloan is relevant in his 22nd year as Utah coach, and they also explain why Sloan's point guard for all but two of those seasons has been either John Stockton or Williams.

"What am I going to do, go crawl under the house?" Sloan said after watching center Mehmet Okur and power forward Carlos Boozer combine for five rebounds. "When you're not as talented as somebody else, you're going to have to work at it. You can't expect to play in a tuxedo."

Neither one of them felt good about it but the next day came and Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams went back to practice. The same as ever.