Early in the season, three-point shooting spearheaded the Boston Celtics’ success, so much so that for the first two months of the year, they had the best offensive rating in league history. But a severe shooting slump has driven a wrench into their plans, leading to them claiming the worst offensive rating in the NBA in December.
However, the shining light amid their current disastrous six-game stretch has been their defense. In the month of December, they have the fifth-best defensive rating in the league at 106.9. For context, their defensive rating last year, when they led the league, was 106.2.
Throughout their recent skid, the Celtics have allowed their poor shooting to affect the way they’ve played on both ends. So, instead of putting all of their eggs in the offensive basket, it might be time to shift their focus back to the defensive side of the floor.
Enter Robert Williams.
The 25-year-old big man returned from injury on December 16 after missing the entire start of the regular season. In the three games he’s appeared in this year, Williams has played 19.0 minutes per contest, averaging 7.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. However, he’s come off the bench in all three games of his comeback. While the starting lineup isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to measuring impact, adjusting it could give the Celtics the spark they so desperately need right now.
Williams’ counting stats are solid for a player coming off of knee surgery, but all of the little things he does on the court are what make him so impactful right now. His performance against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night was his best of the season and showed why he could be the crux that helps get the Celtics back on track.
Throughout the 29 games up until Williams’ return to action, the Celtics ranked 13th in contested shots per game at 49.1. In the three games since, that number has skyrocketed to 61.0. During that span, Williams has contested 8.7 shots per contest (second on the team behind Derrick White). But what might be the most impressive is that Williams, a center, leads the Celtics in three-pointers contested per game (4.0) over the three games he’s appeared in.
Time Lord has contested 16.4 shots per 36 minutes, which ranks eighth in the NBA (and yes, it’s obviously a very small sample size). His ability to seamlessly switch onto guards has given the Celtics a lot more breathing room, and his showing against the Pacers was the first time it was on full display (despite the unfortunate result).
Athleticism, top-notch timing, and above-average lateral quickness for a big man are what allow Williams to be as great as he is on defense, and in turn, he’s become a switchable monster for the Celtics. Against Indiana, he guarded Aaron Nesmith, Myles Turner, Tyrese Haliburton, and Jalen Smith for over a minute. But also, he didn’t guard any of the four for more than two minutes. He’s constantly in motion, switching pick-n-rolls and picking up whatever assignment he needs to.
This possession was at a pivotal point in the game, as the Celtics had been slowly cutting into Indiana’s lead. Williams gets switched onto Haliburton, but he sticks with the assignment. He stays on his toes, stays close enough to prevent Haliburton from pulling up, and even when the Pacers guard gets a step on him, Williams forces him to pass by using his length to deny any sort of shot attempt.
Jayson Tatum gets an easy steal as a result of Williams’ work, and the Celtics are off to the races. Haliburton is having an incredible season (despite the opinions of a certain former Celtic), and there aren’t many big men in the league who would be able to stay with him off the dribble.
The defensive versatility that Williams brings to the table allows the Celtics to play all sorts of different coverages. They can switch because of his quickness, they can play drop because of his ability to spring forward and contest shots, and they can play him on the weakside so he can shift over to the paint as a free safety (which he became known for last season when he was voted on to the All-Defense Second Team).
And it wouldn’t be right to praise Williams’ defensive abilities without showing off an incredible block. He sent former Celtic Aaron Nesmith packing with this one.
That block came just one possession after his defensive stand against Haliburton. He caused two crucial turnovers in a row, putting Boston in a great position to turn the tide. Obviously, they failed to capitalize, but Williams’ defense shouldn’t go unnoticed because of that.
Williams brings more to the game than just defense, though. His offensive impact is wildly underrated, as he provides the Celtics with a safety net when three-pointers aren’t falling. He’s an alternative scoring option due to his vertical spacing, and he does a great job of cleaning up the offensive glass, providing Boston with ample second-chance opportunities.
The Celtics scored 32 second-chance points on 27 opportunities against Indiana, with Williams alone snagging seven offensive rebounds. What makes his offensive rebounding even more remarkable is that his ridiculous length allows him to create second chances even when he’s boxed out. Just look at this offensive board and follow-up bucket.
Bennedict Mathurin had Williams boxed out, and Smith was right there for the rebound. Instead, Williams simply extended his arm into the crowd, tipped the ball out to Malcolm Brogdon, and then remained in position for an easy bucket. He called for the lob, but it’ll take a little while for him and Brogdon to develop that level of chemistry.
And when he’s not gobbling up offensive rebounds, he’s acting as one of the best safety valves in the NBA.
Boston’s offense revolves around the three-point shot. That’s how it’s been all season, and from the way Joe Mazzulla has spoken about their shot profile even after poor shooting nights, it’s not going to change. One slump shouldn’t sway the Celtics into changing their entire offensive gameplan. However, adding Williams into the mix will allow them to take some pressure off of their shooters while simultaneously getting some easy buckets.
Having him in the dunker spot puts opposing defenses in a tricky position, especially on drives. Without Williams on the floor, defenses have mainly had to worry about two things - guarding the driver and guarding the shooters. But now, they have to watch out for the constant lob threat that is Williams.
On this play, Brown gets to the middle of the floor, just barely squeaking past Terrence Ross. By the time he leaves his feat, he has both Ross and Bol Bol committed to him. For the most part this year, he would usually be looking to kick the ball out to a shooter. But instead, Williams is right there, ready for a dump-off pass. Easy money.
Luke Kornet has played this role for the Celtics a decent amount this season, but he’s nowhere near the athlete Williams is (despite putting on his best Stromile Swift impersonation earlier in the season).
As mentioned earlier, the starting lineup isn’t as crucial as it’s made out to be. Finishing a game and playing heavy minutes is far more important. For years, Brad Stevens employed the tactic of starting a deep bench player when a regular was injured in an attempt to maintain normal roles within the team. But in the case of the Celtics and their recent struggles, a small switch-up could be just what they need.
Why not go back to the starting five that dominated opponents last season? Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Al Horford, and Williams had the best net rating in the NBA last season (24.6) when looking at five-man lineups that played at least 200 minutes together. With White’s and Grant Williams’ shooting slump, having Time Lord in the starting lineup in an attempt to place the focus back on defense could be the perfect move.
Throughout the game, Boston can play one-center lineups in order to preserve Horford’s and Williams’ minutes while also throwing Kornet into the mix when those two need a rest.
With how poorly Boston’s offense has been performing, reuniting Horford and Williams would make defense the priority. As soon as he’s ready to go full-out, it’s time for Time Lord to be fully unleashed.