Losing Robert Williams for 8-12 weeks was never going to be easy for the Boston Celtics, especially after they traded Daniel Theis in the Malcolm Brogdon trade. Add in the fact that Al Horford is 36 years old and likely going to need ample rest ahead of the postseason, and Boston was destined to be in a tough spot in the front court.
By the time they learned about Williams’ injury, free agency was all but over. They had already used their MLE on Danilo Gallinari (who unfortunately also got injured), and there was no money left to sign a high-level backup. So, the Celtics made do with what they had.
This meant signing Luke Kornet to a new contract, bringing in Noah Vonleh on a training camp deal, and signing Blake Griffin to a one-year, veteran minimum contract. Vonleh ended up making the team after a solid preseason stint and was rewarded with Opening Night minutes… matched up against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.
With Williams out and Embiid staring the Celtics in the face, Boston’s backup bigs were tested early. Vonleh racked up 20 minutes of action (as the first big off the bench), and Griffin earned eight minutes of his own.
Vonleh’s playing time was largely due to the fact that Horford got into early foul trouble against Embiid, but that’s going to happen. Without Williams available to stagger minutes with Horford, the veteran big man is going to have to get his rest somewhere. And when he does, Vonleh, Griffin, and Kornet need to be ready.
In his first stint, Vonleh looked rough. He was getting bullied by Embiid and just wasn’t jelling with the lineup. But by the end of the game, he looked a lot more comfortable. He was staying with Embiid (as much as humanly possible) and even made a few impressive passes.
“I haven’t been in the league for a year, played in China last year, first game back, so I was definitely very excited. I don’t think there was any anxiety or anything. I was pretty prepared, I put in the work and prepared myself for that moment, so just got to keep going.”
He averaged 15.0 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists for the Shanghai Sharks last year. It marked the first season in which he didn’t appear in an NBA game since 2014.
As for Griffin, he grabbed five boards in eight minutes, which tied for the second-most on the team against Philadelphia. He and Vonleh combined to score three points in roughly 28 minutes of action, but their importance goes far beyond their scoring total.
Vonleh was matched up against Embiid for 5:37 of game time. Embiid scored eight points, shot 3-for-6 from the field, 1-for-2 from three, and picked up a foul. In just five minutes, that’s a solid performance. But in the grand scheme of things, Vonleh did exactly what the Celtics need him to be: a buffer.
Embiid is just about the worst possible matchup the Celtics could have asked for when it comes to getting a feel for their big man rotation. He’s one of the most dominant players in the league today, and when he sees a mismatch, he’s going to attack it.
But the Celtics don’t need Vonleh and Griffin to be an almighty stopper of worlds. They don’t even need them to score. If they can run the pick-n-roll, crash the class, and stay in front of their man on defense, then they’ll have done their job. And that’s exactly what happened against the 76ers.