BOSTON — Robert Williams smiled often over the past month, checking box after box in his recovery, but staying tight-lipped about the exact timing of his return. This time, he wasn’t in a rush, so when conditioning slowed down confidence he’d play on the west coast trip he traveled with the team for the entirety for, Williams held back from returning too soon.
The grins and excitement spread across other faces at Friday’s shootaround, though Williams himself wasn’t present for the open portion. He’s officially listed as questionable for tonight’s game against the Magic. Both Adrian Wojnarowksi and Shams Charania reported he’ll play, and Malcolm Brogdon all but confirmed that’s the case in welcoming Rob and Al Horford back from the birth of his fifth child.
“That’s huge,” Brogdon said. “We basically have a fully healthy team minus Gallo. I’m super excited ... Rob, I’ve seen him battle every day trying to get over that injury and he’s here now, so we’re praying for a healthy season for him. He’s going to make a huge impact.”
Brodgon called Williams and Myles Turner the best shot blockers in the league and noted this is the first time he’ll play with a lob threat like Williams. In that part of the game, his impact may go unrivaled. The Celtics said throughout the start of the season, as they worked their way up from the bottom half to middle to eighth in defensive rating, that Williams would key their return to the heights they accomplished last year on that end.
They also know it’ll be a slow road back. Williams wore a heavy brace during his first full practice and winced after some of his finishes in San Francisco. Teammates have acknowledged he’s looked winded, and Joe Mazzulla indicated it’ll take some time for him to get back to full shape. Williams is expected to play off the bench when he returns.
“It’s really a mental thing more than a physical thing,” Brogdon told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog on Friday. “Your mind still has roadblocks on it to protect your body, even when your body’s ready. That’s just a confidence thing, you’ve got to get back on the floor and get reps and play minutes to get past the mindset.”
Mfiondu Kabengele will watch Williams play after helping the team build through training camp as a center who resembles his teammate’s athleticism and role on both ends. He scored 12 points and nine rebounds for Maine on Thursday after joining the Celtics in Los Angeles for their back-to-back games against the Clippers and Lakers. Williams, who said he wanted to remain heard during recovery, has traveled with the team and gave advice to Kabengele throughout his trips back-and-forth from Maine. He told Kabengele to catch the attention of coaches and executives with his defensive highlights, not his scoring.
Kabengele watched Williams scrimmage with coaches in LA, perhaps his final step toward appearing tonight. Mazzulla said Williams would play when he feels ready and comfortable, and with several weeks of five-on-five activity in the books, roughly one month of cutting, dunking and running the floor, and no physical setbacks, the carpet is rolled out for a long-awaited return at TD Garden.
“He was moving well,” Kabengele told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “I don’t know the timetable, but just based on eye test, he was moving really well. He seemed strong, he seemed confident in his movements, which is the main thing. Once you have confidence in that, the game, the feel will come, the touch and stuff like that. So I was impressed with how he looked, especially when I saw him in the beginning of training camp and how he transitioned now.”