“It don’t stop hurting honestly. It never stops hurting until we’re back in this position again,” a dejected Robert Williams said, fighting off obvious emotions after the Celtics’ Game 6 loss in The Finals. “Starting with the beginning of the season, we just gotta be better, man. We just gotta be better. Everyone’s gotta take a step up. Add a little intensity to everything we’re doing, but it never stops hurting.”
Well, the Celtics have been better. 22-7 better. The best team in the league better. And all that without Robert Williams. But tonight, for the first time since that disappointing summer night six months ago, the Time Lord is back.
Back in June, Williams speculated that all he needed in the offseason was rest. He had initially had surgery back in March for a torn meniscus, but quickly returned in the playoffs. Although he limped through so many of those postseason games, he was at least on the floor, grinding it out and trying to raise Banner 18 with his teammates.
Unfortunately, rest wasn’t enough for Williams and he underwent a second surgery in September that has kept him off the floor for three months. For the most part, the Celtics have flourished without their Second Team All-Defense center. They’ve fielded a historic offense and an improving defense that hasn’t replicated last year’s dominant D that Williams anchored as its free safety.
Boston has been fun to watch. No doubt. A 4-3 start cast some doubts on the Celtics’ standing in the Eastern Conference, but a nine-game winning streak followed by a 5-1 homestand solidified them as not just contenders, but Finals favorites. Jayson Tatum has become a legit MVP frontrunner. Jaylen Brown is an All-Star selection shoe-in. Malcolm Brodgon has been a perfect fit. The love and trust in Marcus Smart is deeper than ever. Every role player from Blake Griffin to Luke Kornet and Grant Williams to Sam Hauser has excelled.
And yet, something has been missing.
There’s the obvious visceral enjoyment watching Rob on the floor. It’s the rise in the crowd when a headliner hits the stage for the first time at a sold out concert, the rush of blood to your head when you suddenly change altitudes on a roller coaster or a love affair. After every dunk, every block, it’s as if the air sucks out of the building and breathed back in with a flamethrower at full throttle.
But then there’s something else.
His acrobatic play on the parquet stands in contrast to his demeanor off it. On the court, you’d swear that he secretly knows all the spots where trampoline springs are hidden in all 30 NBA stadiums. Off the court, he’s humble, often hiding behind few words and a heavy Louisiana drawl.
So, while many might miss his looming defensive presence or the way our bodies sing electric whenever Williams throws down an alley-oop, what I can’t wait to see tonight is his joy that he brings to the game. There are few athletes in sports -- truly, there are few people in any profession -- that exhibit a love for what they do and who they do it with more than Williams.
After practice out in San Francisco last week, Williams could hardly contain his infectious smile. His return was imminent. Sure, his doctors would have to clear him and his conditioning would have to catch up with his unbridled enthusiasm. There's this inexplicable transitive property of watching someone do what they love to do, passion personified and somehow passed on.
That day is here. Robert Williams is back.