There were many positives to take out of the performance Robert Williams put together Sunday night in Indianapolis.
The oft-injured, third-year big man made a noticeable impact with his 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go along with four rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
Williams’s play even forced Celtics coach Brad Stevens to insert the 6-foot-8 forward during crunch time, where he continued to deliver for Boston, including coming up with a clutch steal on T.J. Warren that turned into a breakaway layup by Marcus Smart with 11.8 seconds left and a slim one-point advantage.
Williams displayed tremendous hustle off the bench that only enhanced his stellar athleticism and earned him the trust of Stevens at the game’s most critical juncture. It all was a sign of the potential Williams possess when he doesn’t just rely on trying to jump out of the arena.
But as has become the case for the 23-year-old Williams, who is still trying to solidify his role in the Celtics rotation, he, at times, is held back by his own miscues.
And despite his solid all-around showing, it was a defensive lapse that Williams held on to following Boston’s 108-107 loss to the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
On Indiana’s final offensive possession of the game, Domantas Sabonis caught Williams off-guard by faking a dribble handoff on the wing before getting around Grant Williams and getting the angle and finishing through a recovering Robert Williams for what amounted as the game-winning basket.
Domantas Sabonis has been a killer this season for the pacers. Through 3 games:— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 28, 2020
32-13-5 vs. Knicks
22-10-11 vs. Bulls
19-10-5 vs. Celtics
Clearly building on his All-Star '19-20 season, and playing energetic defense. Came up clutch today too with the go-ahead layup and a flex. pic.twitter.com/iwhNP4Tu4I
Williams took full ownership of the play as he said “he messed up the coverage” — presumably he was supposed to switch with Grant Williams and didn’t communicate that well enough — and because of that breakdown, Williams was harsh on himself, believing all the strong contributions he made could be “thrown out the window.”
“I feel like I’m definitely coming along, making progress. But I’m not coming along fast enough slipping up like this,” said Williams, who played in just his 63rd regular season game of his career. “So next game just try to minimize the slip-ups.”
Williams gave the Celtics a much-needed spark and brought a steadying interior presence, especially after Boston surrendered 39 third-quarter points, against an Indiana team that wanted to do its work in the paint.
Offensively, Williams did a majority of his work around the basket aside for a 19-foot jump shot he canned. On the other end, Williams was his normal self, altering shots with his terrific length and administering a key block on a Malcolm Brogdon drive with just over a minute left in regulation.
Williams displayed active hands in the passing lanes and turned in a nifty play usually reserved for guards in the fourth quarter when instead of running back on defense, he showed good instincts by intercepting a Justin Holiday pass before Indiana could get up court, took two dribbles and slammed the ball home to tie the score.
Williams also molded himself into a threat as a passer, a seldom-used skill from the big man who is more often than not on the receiving end of feeds and lobs from his teammates. One of Williams’s better passes didn’t yield a result as he quickly moved the ball from the low block to the opposite wing for an open Jayson Tatum in the game’s waning moments, but Tatum couldn’t convert the shot. It’s that type of awareness that elevated the showing from Williams.
“Played hard. Played really hard,” said Stevens of Williams. “Obviously we were very low energy in the third quarter and that cost us the game. Anytime you give up 40 on the road in a quarter to a good team, you’re probably going to lose. To our guys credit, they hung in there and got back in the game, but Rob was one of the reasons why because he brought a great deal of energy to the table.”
Williams played nearly the final 4:29 of the contest when he subbed in for the much more experienced Tristan Thompson, who Stevens said is playing on a minutes restriction to begin the season.
Down the stretch, Williams also earned the nod over starting center Daniel Theis, who played just a mere 15 minutes in the loss, with most of that playing time coming in the first quarter.
It was an unexpected opportunity that Williams seized despite his missed defensive coverage in the final seconds and one Williams could see again if he continues to maximize his minutes on the floor like he did versus the Pacers.
“I just thought Rob was our best big tonight,” Stevens said. “I thought that was pretty clear. Played with great energy, played super hard. Did everything well.”