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Welcome back Robert Williams to the Celtics lineup

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Robert Williams returns to the Celtics lineup after missing nearly half the season with a hip condition. At worst, we’ll be reminded of the dazzling dunks and shot-blocking prowess he flashed in 2019. At best, he’ll reshape the center position.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Robert Williams III returns to the Celtics’ lineup tonight and it’s easy to forget he sat on the bench for nearly half of this season. Through the double-overtime win against the Clippers. Through the 76ers and Bucks battles. Through Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s meteoric rises. Through eight wins in nine games, and more recently — 12 wins in 15 games.

Williams missed everything that’s formed Boston’s identity. Before that, in 19 games, he provided a major component to Stevens’ bench as a matchup-based center who accumulated some ginormous performances after a rough rookie season.

He blocked a shot in five straight games to open the season, then six in a November win over the Spurs, where he scored 11 points with seven rebounds. The Celtics outscored opponents by 25 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes with him on the floor.

Everything’s better with a Robert involved.

Boston had a center for every kind of opponent. Daniel Theis provided the floor spacing, sealing and two-way impact to mesh with the starting unit. Then Enes Kanter filled in against sturdier bodies inside as a bench rebounded. Williams provided rim-running and shot-blocking that paired nicely alongside Marcus Smart. When Rob got hurt, Grant Williams emerged.

Brad Stevens never got to set his rotations with all those players, as the Celtics haven’t been fully healthy since opening night. Saturday could’ve been that opportunity, but Kemba Walker’s prolonged knee ailment kicks that bucket to Tuesday.

Williams’ return to 100% will likely be delayed too. Boston tried running big against the Rockets in the first matchup a few weeks back — as Stevens became one of the first coaches tested by their no-bigs lineup. Kanter’s recent struggles didn’t allow that to happen. Houston running Russell Westbrook as a screen-and-roll man presented immediate problems for him.

“Sometimes I think you look at it and say, do you really want to match up?” Stevens said. “There are other times you say yeah, you almost have to.”

Stevens did in the first matchup, opting for 30 minutes of Marcus Smart alongside the wings and Kemba Walker. Kanter and Grant only factored into 16 minutes combined behind Daniel Theis.

Williams will require a minute restriction for the foreseeable future, which falls in line with the 14.2 minutes per game he averaged before. So his 7-10 minutes against the Rockets could be useful to try and hit Houston on the interior with rolls and put backs. But Houston switches everything, physically and aggressively, and the team’s rebounding percentage ranks within 1% of league average since the trade deadline.

The return of Williams becomes Boston’s version of a deadline addition, and one they need given Theis’ foul trouble in certain games and Kanter’s recent struggles. He visualized the game during his absence, gaining a higher IQ and insight from Brad Wanamaker. His positioning, among other things, needed improvement last time he played, but he said he’ll be able to work on those with improved lateral quickness.

Regardless of his true impact, which could become negligible, Williams returns a fun layer that’s easy to forget. While Smart launches deep threes and launches himself into passing lanes, Williams practically lives above the net.

Any lob is within reach, and whether you stand with Team Lob Williams or Team Timelord, you’ll quickly remember what made him intriguing to everyone.