Facing off against the Houston Rockets, Robert Williams won the battle of rising big men. Lining up against Christan Wood, whose stock has been increasing over the last 18 months, Williams dominated last night’s proceedings with swagger and decisiveness.
“His passing, his effort, and when he’s at his best, his interior defense. When we’ve been good, and he’s been good, those have stood out,” Brad Stevens said when asked about Williams’ near triple-double performance.
Williams is on a four-game stretch as a starter (out sick for the Dallas game). The Celtics are 3-1 with the big man averaging 10.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists over 27.8 minutes per game.
“I’m getting way more comfortable with the more minutes I’ve played. And if it stays that way, I’m going to get better.” Williams said after posting 20 points (on a perfect 9-for-9 from the field), 9 rebounds, and 8 assists.
When we think of Williams’ passing ability, typically, it’s hitting cutters from the perimeter in a delay formation or we envision secondary creation off the short-roll. Yet, in recent games, Williams has been flashing some high-IQ looks around the rim by spraying the ball back outside as defenses collapse to contest Williams around the cup.
Since entering the starting lineup, Williams is averaging four offensive boards per night. If the Louisiana native had been doing this amount of work on the offensive glass all season, he would be ranked fourth leaguewide.
On the above clip, we see Williams rebounding and passing ability on display as he battles to keep a possession alive following a Jayson Tatum miss before redirecting the rock back to the perimeter for an easy Kemba Walker three. It’s an instinctual play that only few players are capable of.
“I think that every good big man that passes in this league does that (kick out to the perimeter.) Rob, obviously, has been a good passer from day one.” Stevens explained while discussing Williams impact as a passer.
Right now, Williams is 25th among bigs for assists per game - averaging 1.7 per night. However, his performances as a starter could have the Texas A&M alum battling it out with the likes of Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo in the discussion for best passing big man as early as next season.
“Making the right rim read is important. Sometimes you have dunks, sometimes you have an opportunity to finish through or over people. But a lot of times, you have a lot of people running at you, and it’s going to be a tougher shot than a simple lay-in. So, the corner kick-out, the spray out, is what good passing big-men do.” Stevens explained, as he expanded on the importance of having big men who can read the defense before redirecting the ball outside to shooters.
Outside of his passing, Williams also posted a career high in points, as he dropped a 20-piece on the Rockets with 100% accuracy, along with going 2-for-3 from the free throw line.
“I’m learning my spots. I’m learning where I’m going to score it: off seals, throw-backs, off tip-ins, waiting around for the rebound. I had to take time to realize where I’m going to get the points from,” Williams detailed when asked about his scoring exploits after failing to register double-digit numbers in his previous three games as a starter.
Williams comments also feed off a previous message from Brad Stevens.
“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 after Boston’s recent win over Milwaukee.
Williams was also a force on the defensive end. Excluding garbage time minutes, Williams ranked second with Jaylen Brown (101.8 defensive rating) behind only Marcus Smart, who ended the game with a 97.6 defensive rating. It’s worth noting that no Rockets player had a defensive rating below 115.5.
Williams touched on his defensive growth post-game. “My performance tonight, is a confidence booster 1000%. I see my job as being the defensive anchor. Kind of being the quarterback of seeing everything, directing people, scramming my little guys out – that’s my job.”
With the Rockets making a concerted effort to attack Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in the post by continually forcing unfavorable switches, Williams had a lot of help rotations to make throughout the game.
In the above play, it’s Williams’ help defense that runs Kelly Olynyk into trouble and ultimately forces the turnover. A quick decision to cut off the baseline leaves the Rockets latest big man acquisition with nowhere to go, before Williams garners the steal to launch a fast break opportunity.
Plays like the one above are quickly becoming par for the course, as Williams continues to evolve into a respectable high-IQ rim protector that doesn’t solely rely on his athleticism to deter shot attempts.
With Tristan Thompson still out to health & safety protocols, and Robert Williams finding a rhythm with the starting unit, Brad Stevens is going to have a very tough decision to make in the coming days. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Williams is ready for this larger role he’s recently been afforded, and the team’s performances with him in the starting unit are backing that up.