The long-awaited return of Robert Williams III finally came last night, and there is a lot to be excited about. Sure, his first game back might’ve been slightly overshadowed by an 8-point loss to a bottom five team in the NBA who have no business even existing on the same court as the C’s. But, it’s not about what Rob looks like right now, or even how the Celtics are currently using him. Instead, it’s about what the Celtics could look like once he gets fully up to speed come playoff time.
Despite a decent statline with a perfect shooting percentage, it wasn’t all sunshine and daisies for Rob last night. For starters, his first shift on the court was riddled with 3 quick fouls. He didn’t look as locked in on his weak side help as you would like him to be, and he didn’t have the same lurking defensive feel that we’re used to seeing; even he himself said after the game that he was “a step slow defensively” and is “getting back into rhythm.”
This is all understandable, though. No matter how much you try to get back in shape during practice or through scrimmages, there’s nothing quite like getting your wind back by playing in a legit game, and that’s what Rob will have to do in the coming weeks to get back up to speed.
Here, Williams is not playing with the intensity required to make a game-saving comeback down the stretch. After making no effort to put a body on his defensive assignment, Rob reacts late to the rebound and lets a far-inferior athlete, Markelle Fultz, sky over him for the easy offensive board. It’s an uncharacteristic play from Williams, but I’m going to chalk it up to him getting his conditioning back and not being ready yet to put in multiple efforts on a given possession. That’ll come, though. We’ve seen it before and I would be shocked if we didn’t see it again.
More of the same
“He looked good,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said of Robert Williams after the game. “He looked comfortable out there.”
Even a less-than-100% Time Lord showed flashes of the All-NBA Second Team defensive stopper that we know and love.
Few players in the NBA can make this block. From essentially a standing position, Rob elevates in the lane and completely eliminates Mo Bamba’s weak fall away attempt. He quite frankly has no business even contesting Mo’s shot, but that’s just the kind of physical tools and defensive instincts that make Williams special.
Rob also showcased some of the athleticism that makes him such a unique offensive threat.
Sure, Luke Kornet or even Blake Griffin could’ve dunked this ball, but the fact that Marcus Smart kept the ball on this dribble hand-off with the intent of getting Rob an open look at the rim shows me that the Celtics will look for the lob more aggressively now that Williams is back.
Despite having the best offense in the NBA, the Celtics have been lacking an offensive rim threat. More than just someone who can finish high above the rim and space the floor vertically, Rob is someone whose rim gravity opens up driving lanes for his teammates. Every other Celtic will enjoy having Rob back because opposing bigs will think twice before leaving Williams in the dunker spot, resulting in less resistance at the rim.
Here, Bamba is a step slow to react to Smart’s drive because he’s scared of giving up the easy lob to Williams. It results in an easy finish for Smart at the rim.
After the game, Mazzulla highlighted Rob’s offensive impact: “he really helped our vertical spacing on the offensive end.”
My favorite play
Believe it or not, my favorite offensive play from Rob came on a possession where he didn’t even touch the ball.
The Celtics offense has become littered with cutting, off-ball movement, and backscreens, and it’s what has made them so difficult to stop; smart, timely, and purposeful off-ball actions have led to open three point looks for Celtics shooters (and they have a lot of those, by the way). In this play, Williams sets a very heady back screen for Jaylen Brown once he notices that both Franz Wagner and Bol Bol are focused on Tatum’s drive to the hoop and are collapsing into the paint. Even though it didn’t result in an open three this time, that type of unselfish screening is what the Celtics’ special sauce has been this year. And, from the initial looks of it, Robert Williams is only going to add to that.