Throughout the Boston Celtics' first 24 games, we've seen a specific version of Robert Williams. While the big man has still been getting his work done around the rim, we've rarely seen him dominate opponents with a high-flying brand of basketball. Most of us told ourselves that Williams being more judicial in when he jumps and how hard he slams down dunks or swats shots was part of a plan to protect his knees and lower back, thus limiting injury risk.
Yet, regardless of any prior reasons for staying grounded, Williams decided that he was going to channel his inner Kayne West and touch the sky against the Los Angeles Lakers. Hammering down numerous dunks, the high-flying big man was one of Boston's most trusted offensive outlets during the first half, as he continually found space when rolling or cutting to the hoop.
We've all seen finishes like this from Williams. Hand almost above the halfway point of the backboard, fans gasping in disbelief, followed by a ground-shaking impact, it's a beautiful sight to behold. However, what's most impressive about the dunk is who Williams is dunking on. Anthony Davis is a top-5 big in the NBA, yet even he wouldn't dare to challenge Williams in a jumping battle.
Ok, Williams showed he's still got hops. Great! But the setup for his alley-oop finish was equally impressive. Coming down the floor, entering into a halfcourt offense, the Louisiana native fakes a screen for Tatum before turning the corner and timing his jump perfectly. The fake screen generated the half a step necessary for Williams to be unencumbered on his roll. As soon as Davis believes that a screen is being set, he has to plant his feet and adjust for the inevitable switch he thinks is about to take place. Before he has time to process what's happening, Williams is curling towards the hoop.
We see a similar setup in this play, too. Williams sets a screen, then sets a staggers screen on the weakside before slipping into his roll towards the hoop. Granted, this possession doesn't end in a highlight play, but it does draw a foul and sends Boston's dunkasaurus to the line.
Williams found lanes to the hoop like this almost at will, as the Celtics kept pace with their fierce rivals throughout the first half. However, Frank Vogel had seen enough and made some adjustments to his team's defensive strategy in the hopes of minimalizing one of the league's best roll men.
We're not talking about some insanely complex, high basketball IQ adjustment either. Vogel simply instructed his perimeter players to go under on screens from Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder. That's the problem with having three guards who don't command respect from three. Teams will happily sag off them if a defensive scheme calls for it.
Essentially, you're banking on the "sacrifice a few for the good of the many" type of strategy. When going under on a screen, the defender has to pass directly behind the screener and usually tries to stick as close as possible to limit the distance they need to travel.
In turn, the screener's roll is momentarily unavailable, allowing the defending big to get into drop coverage and limit any offensive advantage someone like Williams would have created. Just those few additional seconds from when the screen is set to when the roll takes place can make a world of difference.
Vogel's adjustment took Williams' offensive impact out of the game and limited him to just one bucket in the second half of the contest. With the Celtics spiraling in the third quarter and failing to find any success in the halfcourt, Ime Udoka pulled Williams from the contest with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, and he wasn't seen again for the rest of the night.
Despite the Celtics second half struggles, we finally got a glimpse of what the future holds for Williams. Sure, we've seen those types of performances before, but seldom against an elite big. The fact that Boston felt confident in featuring Williams as a primary part of their offensive game plan should speak volumes to the progress he's making within Udoka's system.
Unfortunately, the Lakers have laid out a game plan to limit how often the Celtics can lean on William's athletic ability. Now the onus is on Udoka to figure out the necessary counters to ensure a lob pass is an option when struggling to break down halfcourt defenses.