In a playoff series littered with superstars, Robert Williams has positioned himself as the Celtics’ most impactful player on both ends of the court. The third-year big man produced a two-way performance for the ages, blending elite athleticism with a competitive hustle and an unwavering motor.
Despite missing the last four games of the season due to a turf toe and then re-aggravating the injury against the Washington Wizards during the play-in tournament, Robert Williams made his presence felt against the Brooklyn Nets. Williams was a foil to the Nets game plan, pressuring the rim on offense while being a deterrent on the defensive end.
Williams hasn’t yet developed a jump shot, but the spacing he provides the Celtics on offense is undeniable. With every roll to the rim or relocation around the dunker spots, Williams drags defenders out of position due to his gravity above the rim and his teammates feed off that space generation.
Take a look at this pick-and-roll. With Williams setting the screen, the Nets can’t afford to trap Jayson Tatum with Kevin Durant because they know an aerial bombardment would quickly follow. Instead, KD, Brooklyn’s best defender, switches onto Williams to limit the offensive advantage. Durant’s switch provides Tatum with a favorable mismatch against Blake Griffin.
Tatum’s drive to the hoop draws defensive rotations, including the attention of Kevin Durant, which allows Williams to own his space in the weak side dunker spot. Joe Harris has rotated from the weak side corner to pick up Williams and pressure the passing angles, but it makes no difference. Once the defense commits to Tatum, the All-Star wing hits the dump-off to his bouncy teammate for an easy dunk. Quite a simple play with a limited number of actions and yet, Williams’ presence is what made the driving angles for Tatum possible.
It’s moments like these where we discuss a player’s impact: not in the box score, but in how their presence manipulates the opposition into unfavorable situations. By simply residing around the rim or in the short-roll pocket at the free throw line extended, Williams creates opportunities for others, something Boston sorely needs against a switching defense like Brooklyn’s.
However, Williams’ impact in this game was far more profound than space creation on the offensive end. Defensively, the Louisiana native was a man possessed, stalking his prey on every possession, gobbling up rebounds as a vulture does scraps, and contesting shots as if he took each made basket personal. Williams may not have the height to be seen as a true rim protector, but he’s quickly becoming one of the league’s best.
Robert Williams has blocked 1 out of every 6 Nets 2-point attempts in this game, He's played 21 of the 46 minutes.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 23, 2021
Players fear attacking the paint when the Timelord is sharing the court because his closing speed, length, and athleticism mean blocks come out of left field and leave you looking foolish on SportsCenter for the remainder of the week.
Take the above block for example. Yes, it’s far from the most emphatic swat of the night and doesn’t even rate above a 5 on “wow” factor, yet it’s one of the more telling plays of the contest. Williams spends the defensive possession trailing back on defense, struggling to keep pace with the play. Kyrie Irving makes a post-entry pass while the Celtics big man is situated on the weak-side slot (the area between the top of the perimeter and the wing), then Williams turns on the jets.
By the time Bruce Brown gathers the pass, pivots, and gets his shot off, Williams has made up ground in transition and glides through the air. The result is a blocked shot. Two points saved from what seemed a foregone conclusion after Brown’s excellent work to get open off a back cut. Defensive possessions like this one spur your team on; it gives them a boost and confidence that someone can cover if they mess up their rotation.
Of course, there were also a bunch of impressive blocks like this one, where Williams rejects a James Harden stepback from three. You heard that right — a blocked shot from a James Harden stepback three. For further clarity here, Cleaning The Glass tacked Williams as blocking 17.6% of shots taken by Brooklyn while he was on the floor, which quite frankly is absolutely ridiculous.
Williams’ primary defensive strength has always been his shot-blocking ability, but questions surrounded his discipline to stay grounded on up-fakes. Throughout the season, we’ve seen gradual improvements in his defensive IQ and decision-making, which has made Williams a more prominent defensive threat.
Take a look at Williams matchup data from this contest, and notice how he limited his man’s scoring and creation, regardless of who he matched-up with.
While we’re talking about improvements, rebounding should be another area we discuss in terms of development. In just 23 minutes of gameplay, Williams pulled down nine rebounds, five of which were on the offensive end - totaling 17.4% of the team’s missed shot attempts while Williams was checked into the game.
Unlike Tristan Thompson, Williams is also a legitimate passing threat, allowing the team to initiate run-outs or create secondary offense after obtaining the rebound. While this game was one of the Texas A&M product’s quieter nights in terms of facilitation, he did make an excellent hustle play on the offensive glass that led to a tipped assist for Aaron Nesmith late in the first quarter.
There’s nothing spectacular about the above play. Still, it goes to strengthen the point that Williams’ presence against a small Nets team will result in multiple second-chance opportunities and that his hustle on every missed shot will provide the Celtics with the confidence to continue to let the ball fly.
In basketball, volume holds as much weight as conversion when it comes to scoring gravity. If Williams’ presence empowers his teammates to embark on a liberal offense, then his presence on the floor will only grow in impact.
Despite Brooklyn’s stellar names and insane depth, the Celtics hung around for the majority of the contest, only letting the game slip away in the final 6 or 7 minutes of the fourth quarter. An enormous part of Boston’s success came courtesy of Williams’ impact across a multitude of levels. If the Celtics have any hope of forcing a deep playoff series, performances like the one from Williams in the opening game will need to become commonplace.
The Nets might have a Hall of Fame rotation, but they don’t have the Lord of Time, a player who bends the laws of physics to his will and creates stat lines that leave you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. No, that player belongs to Boston, and if his opening game performance were anything to go by, he would end up being the x-factor in this series. Health will be what gives us cause for both hope and concern moving forwards. All we can do now is hope and pray that Williams’ turf toe is healing and the pain is manageable. Because without the 6’8” center, the Celtics don’t have much hope of shocking the world.