Every Celtics victory this season has typically followed a near-identical script. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown dazzle on their way to combining for nearly 50 points if not more. Since he returned, some of Kemba Walker’s final stat lines will impress while others raise a cause of concern.
But over Boston’s previous five games, a new factor has emerged with growing consistency. While the All-Star duo does their thing and Kemba continues to find his footing, Robert Williams III has averaged 9.0 points on 66.7 percent shooting along with 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.8 blocks in just over 20 minutes a night as the Celtics compiled a 4-1 record during that stretch.
Sure enough, the trend continued in a 134-107 win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday evening.
Tatum and Brown combined for 47 points. Walker was a nice 3-of-7 on threes while chipping in six rebounds and five assists, but he also finished 1-of-4 inside the arc for 16 points. And there was Williams once again, filling up the box score in limited minutes with 16 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting with 13 rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes to help Boston end a seven-game road losing streak.
“Rob has been great for us,” Brown said of his teammate. “He’s even getting better as the days are going on.”
Robert Williams is the first Celtics player to produce 16+ points, 13+ rebounds, and a 100% shooting mark in a single game since Ed Pinckney on March 29, 1991— Celtics Stats (@celtics_stats) March 15, 2021
Williams is the first NBA player to accomplish that feat off the bench since the 2012-13 season
The development of Tatum and Brown has always been at the forefront of Boston’s long-term plan and they’re showing exactly why with their All-Star caliber play this season. Among the other Celtics youngsters — a list that continued to grow with each year and non-traded draft pick — it was Williams’ progress chart that garnered the most attention.
It wasn’t that he was significantly better than those teammates. There’s a reason he fell to the 27th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. The fascination with Williams was always about what he could eventually become because of all that he had working in his favor before he even had to tighten his sneakers.
You can’t teach a 7’6’’ wingspan and 40-inch vertical. Perhaps a steeper learning curve was in store for a superb athlete now faced with learning the game at the highest level, but those physical gifts offered the type of tantalizing ceiling no other complimentary Celtic could touch.
Of course, through his first two seasons, that’s exactly what Williams’ positive contributions were: gifts. Surprises sprinkled across the season without any idea how far away the next birthday or holiday was.
Injuries didn’t help the process. He appeared in just 61 games and 671 minutes. But even upon checking into a contest, Williams never made it seem like availability was the only issue holding him back, averaging 4.7 fouls per-36 minutes in those first two years. If it wasn’t a spoon-fed dunk or a whiffle ball-type block, the game was still coming to Williams in a way that had him lost at both ends.
Potential needs to be nurtured, but there comes a point where the player is taking far more than he’s giving. That sentiment was only aggravated on a Celtics team in pursuit of a title with other capable bigs on the roster.
Fast forward to 2021 and the Celtics still occupy two other bigs in Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, the latter signed in some part due to the uncertainty of Williams’ spot in the rotation. But the Timelord’s emergence has forced Boston’s head coach to tweak his rotation, sometimes even on the fly.
“I talked to Theis at halftime,” Stevens explained in his postgame presser in Houston after Theis didn’t see the court following a six and a half minute first-quarter stint. “We’re gonna be in this situation more now, where one of those guys isn’t playing as much as we’re smaller and it won’t be the same guys every night because it’ll be matchup dependant depending on who’s going.”
A relatively clean bill of health has afforded Williams the stability needed to build consistency. He continues to seize it with more instances of a version that’s incessantly inching towards that peak basketball self.
“He’s getting a lot better. You see that,” Stevens said. “And he’s able to play a little bit longer stints than he has in the past because he plays really hard when he’s out there.”
The per-36 minute fouls are down to 4.1, a noticeable decrease from his first two seasons. With each passing infraction comes the knowledge of what’s needed to avoid it, a level of growth best showcased through the patience he’s exuded on some of the more time-sensitive blocks he’s swatted.
Williams only leaves his feet once Anthony Lamb does, thereby eliminating the chance of being duped into initiating contact in ways he might’ve previously fallen for.
Diving to the basket remains the bread-and-butter of Williams’ offensive package, but if the natural chaos of a pick-and-roll doesn’t create an opening, he makes himself a target by carving out space around the basket.
If a teammate decides to launch a shot instead of targeting him near the basket, Williams shows no hesitation to go grab the ball off the rim. That desire explains the 15 offensive rebounds he’s compiled over his last six outings, including three against the Rockets.
It’s something extraordinarily different with Williams every game. He’s had a trio of games with four assists during this 5-1 stretch. He blocked six shots against Brooklyn on Thursday. He became just the 10th player in NBA history to score at least 16 points and grab 13 rebounds in under 20 minutes. Even against a compromised frontcourt for a team amidst what is now a 16-game losing streak, that’s an impressive showing independent of circumstance.
“I just think we can make it so that he can play more and more and more as the season goes on,” Stevens said, speaking more out of concern of Williams’ previous injury history than hesitation over his readiness.
At this point, Williams is hardly giving his head coach much of a choice either way.