BOSTON — Ahead of the Boston Celtics’ Friday night matchup against the Orlando Magic, a simple question was asked.
“Is Rob playing tonight?”
Joe Mazzulla’s response? “Yes.”
It’s been 264 days since Williams appeared in a regular season game, but the streak ends tonight. The big man, who was integral to Boston’s success through the latter half of last season, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery before this season began and has been out ever since.
Throughout Boston’s recent road trip, it was teased that Williams could be close to returning. And while many believed he would make his season debut against the Los Angeles Lakers, he remained sidelined. Instead, the 25-year-old big man will make his first appearance of the year in front of the TD Garden crowd against the Magic - the first contest of a seven-game homestand.
And despite not having played in over half a year (he played in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 16), Mazzulla said that there’s no minutes restriction in place. Instead, the team will simply monitor how he’s doing and go from there.
“There is no restriction. It’s just, you know, he hasn’t played in six months. And so, it’s just making sure we don’t overuse him. Just kind of manage his minutes, how he feels, how he’s playing. So there’s not necessarily a minutes restriction, it’s just more about how he’s doing during the game and then how he is after each game.”
Williams enjoyed a breakout year last season, putting up career-high numbers across the board. He averaged 10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.2 blocks on 73.6% shooting from the field. He was the fulcrum of Boston’s defense, thriving in a free safety role that allowed him to shift over and disrupt offenses in the paint. The big man earned All-Defensive Second Team honors and finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Defense was the Celtics’ calling card last year, but so far this season, they’ve made a name for themselves due to their high-powered offense, which has been spearheaded by elite three-point shooting. Williams is not a floor-spacer, but Mazzulla doesn’t think he’ll change the way they play.
“I don’t think he changes [anything], I think he just makes us better. From the standpoint of rim protection. I think he’ll give our guys confidence. Just being able to guard the ball even more aggressive because they know they have help and size behind. Offensively, screening, vertical spacing. I’ll look to see how teams match up with us depending on their matchups [and] what we run. And hopefully just give us that vertical space as well.”
Last year marked the first season of Williams’ career that he was able to play in more than 60 games, and he just barely reached that mark, appearing in 61. He played a career-high 29.6 minutes per contest, which was a huge test, considering he’s struggled with health problems throughout his career.
Ever since he entered the league, Williams hasn’t been able to consistently stay on the court, but with his most recent surgery, he and the Celtics were determined to get things right. He returned to action quickly after having surgery on his meniscus in the spring, as he wanted to play for Boston throughout the postseason.
This time around, though, there was no rush. And now that he’s finally ready to return, Mazzulla says that he’s very happy with where Williams is at - physically and mentally.
“His conditioning is really good. He’s been doing the five-on-five in the workouts, and then his recovery the day after, the second day after, has been really good as well. Just kind of happy where he is, both physically and mentally.”