The return of Robert Williams will be a key moment for the Celtics this season



Williams is expected to make the top-seeded Celtics much better on both sides. No pressure.

Robert Williams could be back for the Celtics this week. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

On Celtics Media Day in September, Robert Williams cut to the chase in a way he’s particularly prone to doing.

Williams is an entertaining interview – unerringly himself, but never defiantly, which makes it insightful and interesting. When he was a first-timer, he couldn’t resist using swear words during his press conferences, but it was always clear that he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or pissed off. That’s how he talked, and when he answered questions from the media, he just talked.

Over the years, Williams has become a little more polite, but he remains a reliable source of outspoken honesty. So when a reporter asked if playing in the final so soon after surgery on his meniscus – which may have resulted in his final absence from the team – was worth it, Williams answered in no uncertain terms.

“I played in the final, mate,” Williams said. “You win some, you lose some, but I don’t regret my decision at all. I was 24 and my dream was to play the final. I don’t regret that s—-.

Even if it ruined his offseason?

“If that’s the case, then I go back to my first answer,” Williams replied. “Like I said, I made this decision as a man, so whatever it is, it is what it is.”

Fast forward a few months, and Williams’ absence has had little (if any) effect on the Celtics’ season so far, further justifying their decision to play in the playoffs. The Celtics have been world beaters without him – the No. 1 seed in both the East and the NBA at 21-6, with wins over every team in the Western Conference top six and a plenty of potential Eastern Conference playoff wins. opponents. They have the best offense in the NBA by a wide margin, and their defense is climbing the ranks (now 7th, according to Cleaning the Glass).

Placing Williams will siphon off a few minutes from someone playing well, because the Celtics really don’t have anyone playing badly at this point. Lineouts with Al Horford in the center outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions. With Blake Griffin, that number jumps to 16.5. The Celtics’ most-used starting lineup — Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Derrick White — has an 18.4 net rating over the past 10 games. That total isn’t quite the starting lineup from last year (Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford and Robert Williams, who outscored their opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions), but it was clearly very good.

Still, on paper, Williams should help a lot. The best starting line-up in the league last year was excellent as they obliterated opponents on both sides. This year’s top defensive roster (White, Brown, Tatum, Grant Williams and Horford) allows 102.8 points per 100 possessions – 12th best among rosters with 100 or more possessions. Last year’s starters gave up a staggering 94.8.

Robert Williams won’t solve all of the Celtics’ problems defensively, but he was a second-team All-Defensive selection last year for a reason. The Celtics played excellent defense individually in Ime Udoka’s change-all system, and when they were beaten by an attacking player, Williams was there to Swiffer away from the mess. The Celtics are giving up the third-fewest shots within five feet of the NBA rim, but opponents are shooting 63.6 percent on those opportunities. As Ringer’s Michael Pina noted earlier this week, the Celtics are allowing two more driving layups per game with Williams sidelined – an indicator that teams are feeling a little too comfortable driving to the on board when he’s not there.

Meanwhile, Williams also offers a lot on the attacking side. The Celtics have endless spacing and can play a number of lineups that pull opponents out of the building. Williams adds vertical spacing, and he’s an elite short-term passer. That makes him a huge threat offensively – what do you think of a Smart-Williams pick-and-roll when the floor-spacing players are Brown, Tatum and Grant Williams (46.2% vs. 3 this season) ? Or Al Horford (46.6%)? Or Sam Hauser (45.2%, but it looks like 75%)? Do you prevent the lob but get out of one of the shooters? Do you let Smart run to the rim and try to contest a layup? Do you just watch in awe as Smart throws the ball high in the air and hope he threw it too high somehow? The options aren’t great.

The Celtics will be better on the court with Williams. But one of the most important intangibles Williams can provide is a simple sense of integrity. So far, the Celtics have been playing with something like found money, and they’ve more than enjoyed it. But in the periphery, Williams’ return has always loomed large – the conversation oscillating between “Imagine when Rob will return” (most of the time) and “Well, at least Rob will return at some point” (six times until ‘now).

So whenever that happens – whether it’s Tuesday against the Lakers, Friday against the Magic or sometime in the near future – here’s a warm throwback to Robert Williams, a young man whose personality makes the Celtics more colorful. and whose skills make them better. . They are already the best team in basketball, and everyone will be watching to see how Williams’ return affects them on both sides. On paper, his return has the potential to take them from an elite team to league favourite.

Expectations are incredibly high. No pressure.



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