Celtics

Robert Williams doesn’t look like himself yet, which means the Celtics have another gear

"We feel confident that he'll be ready by next game."

Robert Williams
Robert Williams of the Celtics celebrates in the final minutes of the Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In a first-round series full of impressive performances by Celtics players, Robert Williams’ return in Game 3 may have been one of the more encouraging moments.

There were plenty to choose from. Jayson Tatum looked every bit the superstar the Celtics need him to be. Jaylen Brown played well in important moments. Al Horford made a lot of big shots. Grant Williams defended Kevin Durant as well as we’ve seen anyone defend the Nets’ superstar in a while.

Comparatively, Robert Williams — who came back after missing a little more than three weeks with a torn meniscus — didn’t have much of an impact. For the Celtics, that worked just fine. And at full strength, the team that just swept the Nets can reach another level.

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The Celtics’ starting lineup with Williams in the mix — which has been one of the NBA’s best five-man groups — outscores opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Their second-most used lineup swaps out Al Horford for Grant Williams and is even more dominant, outscoring opponents by 33.3 points per 100 possessions. Tellingly, if you replace Robert Williams with Horford and leave Grant Williams on the floor, the Celtics are actually outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.

Other than Jayson Tatum, no Celtic had a better on/off differential than Robert Williams (+5.9, tied with Marcus Smart), and other than Tatum, no Celtic positively impacted the defense more. Losing him was one of the few things that seemed likely to give the Celtics’ juggernaut some pause in the first round.

Sure enough, the Celtics missed Williams’ rim protection, as well as his vertical spacing. He returned in Game 3, and while he caught a couple of lobs, he never quite looked like himself.

Again, that was fine against an overmatched Nets team, and getting Williams back on the court for a couple of warm-up games that the Celtics won anyway could pay enormous dividends down the road.

“For him, it’s good to get his feet wet in a few games and that’s why it’s beneficial that he came back before the end of the series,” Ime Udoka said. “He got a taste of it, and we can use this week to prep him back in, continue to rehab and build on his body and then get him more confident to his normal minutes.”

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A fully operational Williams would be a big boost against the Celtics’ presumptive second-round opponent — the Bucks, who lead their series against the Bulls 3-1. If the Bucks take care of business against the short-handed Bulls, a Celtics-Bucks series reportedly could start as soon as Saturday or Sunday.

In three games played against the Bucks this season, Williams shot 83.3 percent from the field (even better than his usual lofty numbers) and blocked two shots per game. Schematically, he makes the Bucks’ offense a little more difficult — if the Celtics can slow Antetokounmpo at all on his powerful forays into the paint, Williams can be a deterrent.

“He makes everybody else’s job a lot easier,” Marcus Smart said after Game 3. “We were so excited to see Rob back out there. He’s just an instrumental part of our offense, defense, and this team.”

The Celtics need Williams to be more than just a morale booster — they need him to be one of their best players. With several days off for a little more rehab and some scrimmaging, Williams has a chance to get further acclimated before a second-round series, and the Celtics have a chance to add a piece that helps make them whole.

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“We relied on our other guys to hold it down till he’s back,” Udoka said. “And we feel confident that he’ll be ready by next game.”

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