Robert Williams got his first start of the season (fourth of his career) in an impressive victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. The third-year big-man out of Louisiana was a dominant factor in the Celtics’ remarkable performance, affecting the game on a multitude of levels.
Williams, who has struggled with injury and opportunity throughout his young career, has been on an upward trend in recent months, stemming back to the NBA bubble. Despite the 6’8’’ big’s bench performances this season, the Celtics have been wary of placing too much too soon on the ever-improving Williams.
However, against the Bucks, with Daniel Theis no longer on the roster and Tristan Thompson still out due to COVID health and safety protocols, Williams became the de facto starter.
Playing as the third big in the rotation this season, Williams had been confined to an impact role off the bench. Despite taking the step into a more significant role against higher-level competition, the big man found ways to impact winning outside of highlight lob plays and ferocious dunks.
“Feel like I did what I’m put out there to do. Feel like I generated a lot of energy for me and my teammates.” Williams said after filling the box score with 7 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, and two steals.
A once raw athlete with little positional awareness, and a fondness for biting on the slightest of fakes, Williams is quickly becoming a legitimate defensive anchor for the Celtics. However, Brad Stevens quickly stressed the importance of not becoming over-reliant on Williams’ shot-blocking and rim-protecting capabilities.
“Yes, Rob can impact at the rim, but if you make him rotate off his guy, teams are good enough to jump pass and dump it off to the big in the dunker,” Stevens said. “They’re good enough to jump pass and hit corners. It’s nice to have guys that can block shots down there, but it’s even better when you keep guys in front.”
Williams finished the Milwaukee game with five blocks and countless altered shots around the rim, as the Celtics recorded one of their better defensive showings of the season.
“Coach just told me it’s an opportunity, and to make the most of it,” Williams said when asked about his potential role change following Daniel Theis’ departure at the trade deadline.
Williams was clearly embracing the opportunity with passes like this on the offensive end, showing that he’s more than a vertical-spacing big man. Finishing the game with six dimes, Williams displayed a playmaking ability from the five spot that the Celtics have lacked since Al Horford was in green.
However, Stevens’ was quick to note how Williams’ presence provides the team with a different offensive outlook to years past.
“I’m assuming he was comfortable with how things went tonight. We certainly were. He did a good job. I don’t think it’s as big a surprise that scoring opportunities won’t be there in the starting lineup as you’re playing against the best players every night. And he’s certainly a threat down there at the rim. It’s a little bit different with how we’ve played with bigs in the past, where you have some skill and being able to shoot the ball, and those kinds of things. But he does draw attention when he’s on the baseline or he’s rolling towards the rim.”
Stevens’ comments are fair. In Horford (and to a lesser extent Aron Baynes or even Kelly Olynyk), the Celtics have regularly had a big who’s a threat to pull-up from deep while operating in DHO situations - either above the break or on the wing in weave actions.
Williams’ presence provides a totally different style of spacing, one which the starters will have to adapt to and embrace should the Texas A&M alum make the switch to the starting lineup permanently.
“He’s got to create a great synergy with the starters as far as helping them get open, and helping get them the right looks – I thought he did a great job tonight,” Stevens said.
Williams was singing from the same hymn sheet, as he also spoke of the importance in getting his teammates open.
“Feel like I put more of an emphasis of getting them open shots, trying to get them to that spot.”
Flying from screen to screen, rolling hard to the rim, and battling for second chance opportunities, Williams puts his money where his mouth is. Evidently, the loss of Theis - who Williams saw as a big brother - has opened the door for Williams to continue his development into the Celtics starting center of the future.