Robert Williams III proves to be a game-changer for the Boston Celtics

By Yaron Weitzman
NBA Sports Writer FOX

BOSTON — In the hours leading up to tipoff, as he leapt and dashed across TD Garden’s hardwood floors, Robert Williams III felt, well, not quite as good, but better than he had felt in weeks. “A little looser” was how he would describe it later.

He was given three days between Games 2 and 3 and spent that time treating his stiff left knee. Icing Stretch. Stimulate. Napping — or, rather, as a father of two young children, at least try.

“Sometimes I try to take a nap before a game, and I hear a small knock on the door,” he said.

Williams first picked up a knee injury in March, when a meniscus tear ruled him out of the final seven games of the regular season and the first two playoffs. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a bruised bone in the same knee. The injury cost him the final three games of the Boston Celtics conference semifinal clash with the Milwaukee Bucks and Game 3 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

Williams is back, but he looks like a shell of himself. The antelope, bouncy, edge-running and shielding power (he stands 6-foot-9 inches but has a 7-foot-6 wingspan) that propelled the Celtics during their dominant run through the second half of the season has been lost. He’s slow. He is ground bound. He was the only weak link in the stifling Celtics defence. The injury made him unplayable.

But the Celtics – in particular, first-year coach Ime Udoka – spent the season pushing Williams to become more comfortable playing through the pain. “If you can leave we will take 20 per cent of you. Better than none of you,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart told Williams recently.

And in the Celtics’ 116-100 Game 3 win over the Warriors on Wednesday, Williams gave her squad more than that. He’s everywhere on the floor—hitting one hit one possession, blocking another jumper, hitting the board, diving on the floor, punishing the Warriors for trying to play small.

“He decided to go out there and put his big boy pants on and smoke them and go crazy,” Smart said afterwards.

Williams had eight points and 10 rebounds with four blocks and three steals as the Celtics edged the Warriors with a team-best 21 points in the 26 minutes she was on the floor.

“He was a game changer,” Celtics forward Al Horford said after the game. “Rob is a real game changer. We are very lucky to have a guy like that who influences wins in the way he does because it goes beyond the numbers with him. It’s just that everything he brings, is on the right track.”

Three games into the series, it became clear that Williams’ health and production could be a turning point for the Celtics. When he is active, they look invincible. That’s what happened in their Game 1 explosion in San Francisco: He dropped eight points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 24 minutes of action.

In Game 2, he was capped on two points, two rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes. Celtics lost 19.

Williams is an integral part of everything Boston does at both ends of the floor. He was at the heart of their fast mid-season turnaround. Udoka’s decision to change his defensive scheme midway through the season and start putting Williams into the opposition’s weakest shooter, a move meant to free him up to fly over the edge, was one of the reasons the Celtics finished the season top of the league. -defense rating. His presence alone has the ability to scare away the opposing goalscorer.

“We’ve talked about just being aware of where he’s at because, especially depending on who he’s guarding, he can pop out of nowhere,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said after Game 3. “There was play early in the fourth game, I got Grant Williams. and think I’ve had daylight to shoot, and you underestimate how athletic he is and how much he can interfere with those shots.”

But Robert Williams also becomes more than just a rim protector, at least when he’s healthy and at his best. It was evident throughout Game 3. Just scan the grid score. Look for areas where the Celtics are leading, and you’ll see the trail.

Beat the Warriors 47-31? Check! Beat them in the 15-6 offensive glass? Check! (Williams had three). Outperform them in paint 52-26? As you can see from the tweet below, check it out!

Or what about the 23-11 run in the fourth quarter, which came after the Warriors returned to the game with one of their signature explosions in the third? The explosion was propelled by a barrage of bombs from Curry and Klay Thompson. Once into the fourth quarter, the Celtics adjusted their defense.

“We’ve got to switch a little bit more,” said Udoka, “and that’s asking for a lot of Rob and Al and those guys. They’ve been doing it all year, but with Rob a little bogged down and out of there, you’ve got to work a little harder to beat Curry, with the reach those guys have. For him, it worked tonight.”

The Warriors connected with just one of nine appearances in the fourth quarter from deep.

The question now is whether Williams can keep him. There’s only one day off before Game 4. And the minutes will continue to add up.

“Throw some stuff in there, see how he reacts,” he said of his knee after Wednesday’s game. He limped into the media conference room, just as he had the past few weeks. One reporter asked what he had learned about himself by pushing the pain away.

“Just trying to be in charge of my team,” he replied. “We’ve made it this far. I’m happy with his progress. We’ll be worried about injuries after the season, but for now, I’m still fighting.”

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of “Tanking to the Top: Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Brave Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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Robert Williams III proves to be a game-changer for the Boston Celtics

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