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Halftime Hot Takes: Finally healthy, Boston Celtics putting the pieces together

With a (mostly) healthy roster, the Celtics are finding the fit for Robert Williams III

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off of the biggest win of their season, 139-118 over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics are back to work tonight, as they approach the end of their recent homestand by hosting the young Houston Rockets. Any time a team scores such a big-ticket success, there’s always the lurking danger of a let-down game on the horizon, and despite Houston’s lowly status in the Western Conference, they’ve given the Celtics a run for their money in the first half tonight, trailing by just seven at the break, 56-49.

That said, though the Celtics might not be running away with the Rockets the way they should be, from a talent standpoint, there are nonetheless still some interesting things to discuss tonight. In this case, we’re interested in the play — and usage — of one Robert Williams III, who has thus far recorded seven minutes in his fourth game back from offseason knee surgery. This has been perhaps his most impactful outing since his season debut, as he’s scored four points (including a tip-back layup), grabbed seven rebounds and swatted a pair of shots.

Last season, Williams prowled the paint for arguably the best starting lineup — and best five-man lineup, period — in basketball. The Celtics lit the league on fire in the second half of last season, with the starting group of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Williams posting a blistering net rating of 24.6 for the year. Williams’ ability to alter the game on both ends of the court contributed greatly to that success. With his return to the Celtics this year after offseason knee surgery, it’s only a matter of time before he reassumes that spot for this team. Right?

Maybe not so fast, say coach Joe Mazzulla, who pumped the breaks on hasty lineup decisions as Williams continues to work himself into form on the court.

The question of Williams as a starting center is a much more interesting one than it might have been last year. Setting aside Williams’ continued recoveryy (obviously a substantial factor on its own), this Celtics team also just has a lot more room for lineup creativity. Adding Malcolm Brogdon this summer turned the guard room into the team’s biggest source of depth, and that depth has helped carry them while Williams has been sidelined.

In Williams’ absence, Derrick White has spent the most time as a member of the starting five alongside the usual group of Tatum, Brown, Smart and Horford. That quintet is Boston’s most-used lineup, minutes-wise, and it’s been among the most effective five-man groups in the entire NBA thus far this year, with an 18.9 net rating that ranks third among lineups with comparable usage. Their other fill-in piece — the other Williams, Grant — has acquitted himself well with the starting unit as well, with a 10.3 net rating alongside the other four in 120 minutes thus far this season.

It raises an interesting question: do the Celtics actually need Robert Williams to start? Given the team’s improved depth at other positions — and relative lack of depth at center — is last year’s double-big starting lineup their best option at the moment? With multiple other players having shown themselves capable of excelling as starters — lest we forget, Brogdon is also a seasoned playoff starter in his own right — the ability to manage Williams’ minutes as a reserve might prove to have more long-term value for this particular team.

As we wait for the second half to get underway: what do you think the best usage is for Williams on this roster? Let us know in the comments below if you think he should start or come of the bench.

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