Starting is the envy of nearly every NBA player. So when the Boston Celtics moved starting big man Daniel Theis at the trade deadline, Robert Williams couldn’t help but grow excited at the opportunity that was soon to come.
Williams had been doing just fine coming off the bench until that point, putting in 10.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 2.4 assists a night in the 12 games leading up to the deadline. But being inserted into the starting lineup meant more than a potential numbers boost.
This was the late first-round pick who battled injuries and foul troubles through his first two years in the league. He had to fight just to earn minutes on any given night. By moving Theis, the Celtics — with a little financial incentive mixed in — actively sought to rely more on Williams’ abilities. Quite the perception change.
“I think it puts a lot on him,” Brad Stevens said when asked what the new role means for Williams. “He’s made a lot of strides and done a lot of good things... Rob’s a critical part of our team now and a critical part of our team for the future. So that’s an opportunity for him.”
Through the first five games of his new NBA life, Williams looked right at home. He had made a scorching 72.7 percent of his shots, averaging 11.8 points along with 10.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.6 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. He turned heads with a near-triple double effort in a blowout win over Houston.
More minutes (17.2 before the deadline compared to 27.3 after) meant nights made easier playing alongside better teammates. Most importantly, Boston won four of those five games — Williams missed a loss to Dallas with an illness.
But if Williams was experiencing all the luxuries a spot in the starting lineup has to offer, a run in with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers offered a hard-hitting dose of reality.
The good news is that Williams wasn’t much to blame for Embiid’s 35-point effort in Philly’s 106-96 win. The bad news? It’s because he quickly played himself off the floor, racking up six fouls in less than 14 minutes of action.
“I knew coming into the game that my biggest concern with Rob was him staying on the court,” Stevens said after the game. “...If I had to guess going into this game Rob was probably gonna foul a few times in the first couple of minutes. That’s just part of it.”
In the not so distant past, Embiid wouldn’t have even been a primary concern for Williams because the task would’ve hardly been part of his job description. Such is one of the benefits of coming off the bench. Coaches typically match you up with the backups of the opposing team so only so much can be asked of you in regards to slowing an MVP candidate. That explains why, according to NBA.com, Williams hadn’t even matched up with Embiid for more than 55 seconds before this contest.
As a starter, however, things work differently. Though the Celtics would have to send help towards one of the game’s toughest matchups, how Williams handled his individual assignment would help dictate the effectiveness of Boston’s defense.
That defense was compromised not two minutes into the game when an all-advised steal attempt took Williams out of the play and an attempt to return resulted in a foul.
Embiid can hit a shot from anywhere on the court, as he showed the fans in attendance at TD Garden multiple times with dribble moves that impersonated James Harden. Williams, who gives up significant height and weight, was always going to be at a disadvantage. But creating an open highway for Embiid to get the first two of his 20 free-throw attempts is something you simply can’t afford to do.
Everything quickly spiraled for Williams from there. Foul No. 2 called several minutes later looked like it could’ve been ruled a jump ball with Ben Simmons, but the foul trouble Williams was now in was a direct result of the blunder that earned his first infraction.
A third first-quarter foul with less than two minutes remaining — this time drawn by a pump-faking Furkan Korkmaz beyond the arc — put Boston behind the eight ball by shifting Stevens’ rotation out of whack for the rest of the game, specifically in the quarter that followed.
Williams didn’t play at all in the second quarter. Tacko Fall saw court time much earlier than he’s used to. The Celtics were outscored 34-22 in the frame, creating a deficit that proved too large to come back from.
Sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference, Boston doesn’t exactly have time to deal with teaching moments, but the loss to Philly and the part he played is exactly what Williams needs after coasting through his first five games as a starter without much resistance.
Being a starter means you’re not always blessed with optimal circumstances. Yet even in those games when nothing works in his favor, Williams now has a greater responsibility to fight those long odds as best he can without anyone to step in and take over if he falls short.
“He’s got a lot to work on,” Stevens said. “But he’s getting better and he’ll keep getting better.”