Don’t overlook the importance of the Celtics winning the battle of the big men in Game 4

Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Robert Williams swarmed Miami’s Bam Adebayo and took the ball away in the third quarter on Monday.

The Celtics’ starting big men don’t have a cool name like the Heat’s Edrice Femi “Bam” Adebayo.

Al Horford and Robert Williams mostly just answer to Al and Rob, which is the name equivalent of basic fundamentals, though the latter does still get shouted out as “Timelord” on occasion.

But in the Celtics’ series-tying, suspense-free 102-82 rout of the Heat in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Finals Monday night, Horford and Williams were so effective on both ends of the court, particularly in neutralizing Game 3 tormentor Adebayo, that they might as well have been called “Wham” Horford and “Slam” Williams.


Horford delivered one of the odder stat lines you’ll see this postseason for a player who was crucial to victory – it was kind of a Draymond Green Special. In 33 minutes, he took just two shots, hitting a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws for his 5 points.

This was one of those nights where his value and importance were found everywhere else in the box score: he grabbed 13 rebounds, blocked 4 shots – including one in the fourth quarter in which he either saluted the crowd or was feigning looking into the distance to see where the pulverized basketball had landed – and dealt out 3 assists.

Perhaps most important, he set a physical tone in stifling Adebayo, who had just 9 points and 6 rebounds after dominating the Heat’s win in Game 3 (31 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals). And he did it immediately: on the first play of the game, Horford stripped the ball from Adebayo. On this night anyway, Bam couldn’t handle the Wham.

“Bam got It going last game, and guys take that personal,’’ said Celtics coach Ime Udoka afterward.

Horford also contributed his usual array of intangibles. With Marcus Smart out with a high ankle sprain, Horford subtly picked up some of the ball-handling duties, making a point to push the ball up the court himself after virtually every one of his rebounds.


It was impressive stuff for a 36-year-old carrying a heavy workload this postseason. We should be past the point of referring to Horford as unsung, because most fans know how good he is. But it was nice to see him get “sung” a bit by the Garden crowd midway through the third quarter when, after he stole the ball from Kyle Lowry on one possession and blocked a shot on the next, he got a raucous standing ovation.

And Williams? His contributions are always more visceral. There was much suspense before the game waiting to see who was in and who was out for both teams, this physicality of this particular series and the long season as a whole taking a toll on both rosters.

The word that Williams, who missed Game 3 with knee soreness and had meniscus surgery in late March, would play seemed essential to the Celtics’ chances, even more than having floor-leader and defensive menace Smart out there. Adebayo throttled Celtics backup center Daniel Theis in the bubble two years ago, and he did it again in the tone-setting first few minutes of the Heat’s Game 3 runaway before Udoka determined it was wise to go with other options.


The Celtics, facing the threat of falling behind 3-1 and watching this extraordinary season (well, since January anyway) begin to fade to black, needed Williams to play, and they needed him to play well. And so what a relief it was that he not only gave it a go on the aching knee, but was his usual active, often electrifying self as the Celtics seized early control and refused to let up.

Williams scored 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting, hit all four of his free throw attempts (he’s made 14 of 16 from the line in the postseason), grabbed 9 rebounds, blocked two shots, and made his presence known to the Heat at all times.

“Every time they went to the basket,” noted Brian Scalabrine on NBC Sports Boston’s postgame show, “they were keeping an eye on where Robert Williams was.”

On offense, Williams did stay relatively earthbound by his usual soaring standards. He did catch a lob from a driving Horford for an early slam, but his greatest contribution was in doing some grunt work and helping the Celtics retain possession – he had five offensive rebounds –  on a night the Celtics shot just 39.7 percent.

When Rob Williams tipped in a Grant Williams miss at 10 minutes, 41 second of the second quarter, it was already the Celtics’ 25th rebound of the night to the Heat’s mere nine. The Celtics finished with 41 rebounds in the first half, including nine by Williams and eight by Horford, and 69 rebounds total.

Williams was limping slightly when he checked out for good with approximately 7 minutes left, which immediately leads to concern about his status for Game 5 in Miami Wednesday.  Udoka said removing him was “precautionary.”


Williams didn’t seem too bothered afterward.

“Great feeling being back with my guys,’’ he said. “The knee feels great … [just] taking it day by day, spending a lot of time with the trainers. Throwing a lot of scenarios at it, see how it responds.”

Monday night, Williams’s knee responded well enough to help the Celtics respond in exactly the way they needed to in Game 4.  And so the countdown continues: Two more wins gets the Celtics to the Finals. Six more gets them a banner. Here’s to good health the rest of the way.


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