There is a unique duality to the notion that watching Robert Williams III play basketball of late is the stuff of nightmares. On one hand, he’s a terror to oppose. When the Golden State Warriors look to attack a paint manned by a Williams who looks to be close to 100 percent — a rare level of health for the big man that has eluded him since he entered the NBA in 2018 — they are taking on an Indiana Jones vs. boulder-type mission, only the boulder is springy and has arms and legs.
On the other hand, Williams is, indeed, rarely healthy. At the moment, he’s perpetually questionable with left knee soreness that lingers from when he tore his MCL late in the regular season. So, to watch him leap and land is often coupled with a cringe and sharp inhalation, like seeing a squirrel try to leap from the ledge of a building to a tree 20 feet away. The squirrel doesn’t have any depth perception; you just hope it doesn’t die on the possible-yet-definitely-inevitable plummet that awaits.
So, when Marcus Smart inadvertently fell onto Williams’s left leg midway through the third quarter of the Celtics’ Game 2 loss in San Francisco — thus sending Rob to the bench for the remainder of the game, which slipped out of Boston’s fingers soon after his exit, if not because of it — you would’ve been forgiven had you assumed this was the end of the road for Williams in these Finals. The guy had been rehabbing, hobbling, and too-many-Ibuprofen-ing his way through the postseason already. A stray dose of friendly fire like this had to have been the end, right?
Well, you and the 95 percent of people who agreed with you would be wrong. Rob laughs at your pessimism, because of course he does. “It’s The Finals,” he said following Boston’s pivotal Game 3 victory in which he delivered perhaps the contest’s most vital performance.
“I’m just trying to be accountable for my team,” Williams, who missed games in each of the first three rounds because of his knee injury, told reporters. “We’ve made it this far. I had a discussion with myself, by pushing through this. I’m happy with how it’s going. We’ll worry about the injury after the season, but for now, I’m still fighting.
“Knowing what I’m playing for, taking the risk of playing and getting this far, I’ve obviously got more work to do,” Williams continued. “But it’s worth it, for sure.”
As long as he continues to pull off playing great, efficient basketball on top of his marvelous performance art (read: making everyone watching believe that he was 100 percent, given how great he looked from a movement perspective), that arrangement will do just fine. Wednesday’s effort of 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals — not to mention finishing a game-high plus-21 — was by far Williams’ best outing of his postseason career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. After a 14-minute cameo in Game 2 ended with a grimace and a points-rebounds-blocks line of 2-2-2, a response like the one he gave last night was a must.
Marcus Smart said he told Williams before the game, “If you can go, we’ll take 20% of you. Better than none of you.” After the win, Smart added, “I’m constantly talking to Rob, just for the simple fact I know what he’s going through. He’s hurting, and even though he’s hurt, he still wants to get out and help his team. But at the same time, he’s thinking about his career. Like I just told him, you know your body. You know what you can withstand and what you can’t. But just know, we’ve got a chance to do something special. There’s no guarantees that we’ll be back here.”
I find myself giddy watching Williams play, on both ends. Offensively, the way he skies to the rim, as though everywhere he trots, a trampoline follows, makes me grin a grin the Cheshire Cat would be jealous of. And defensively, I clamor for chances to take in his ability to send opponent’s shots careening out of bounds, or to use his deceiving length — we forget that Rob is just 6-foot-9, a height on par with that of his teammate, Jayson Tatum — to snatch passes out of the air before they can even come remotely close to arriving at their destination. He’s one of the most exciting young bigs I’ve ever seen in all my years watching the NBA; at Thursday’s media availability, Ime Udoka called him, “The modern NBA center ... a luxury for us.”
Williams has evolved into a player that doesn’t always need to leave craters behind in order to have his impact felt. As a younger, less-refined big, he was beloved for his runs to the rim behind the backs of unsuspecting defenses and the use of his lob-catching abilities that punctuated those sprints. Of course, he can still pull off those sorts of plays, those that ignite the crowd to peak decibels. Sometimes, he even puts together nights and stretches on which they are the only plays he makes — and they still all serve his team’s ultimate goal.
But what’s perhaps even more appreciated is his ability to check off the boxes on his nightly “little things” to-do list. He may come into a game with the tasks “get three offensive rebounds”, “take away Steph Curry’s ability to create for his teammates on missile passes into the paint,” or “make all my free throws :)” populating his daily to-dos. Now, it doesn’t always matter if he checks off every single item each time out. It’s his effort that matters most, and if a clear mark has been left on the game because of him. That he’s kept up that end of the bargain with his own list, despite a nagging and significant injury looming over his head, is impressive in and of itself.
“Rob is really a game-changer,” Al Horford said of his paint-dwelling partner. “We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that that impacts winning in the way that he does. It’s beyond the numbers with him. It’s just all the things that he brings, being in the right places.”
Speaking to the media on Thursday, Williams offered up a somewhat encouraging update on his injury, despite it seeming a bit more optimistic than others from earlier in the postseason. “The extra days help,” he said, “It’s up and down, so we gotta read it day-by-day, but last night, I was feeling pretty good.” He also noted that, this morning, the knee was feeling good, and that it was one of his better days so far. That should be music to the ears of fans everywhere, considering how hard he played on Wednesday.
For the Warriors, anything Rob-related hardly feels like music, unless it’s amplified death metal. When called upon to thwart Golden State’s easier scoring opportunities in Game 3, Timelord turned back time to when his knees were their springiest; Golden State was only able to score 26 points in the paint, half of Boston’s total. The Celtics also hauled in 60 percent or so of all available rebounds including 40 percent of their own misses (15 offensive boards out of 47 total). Steph Curry summed up those disparities plainly: “They have Robert Williams out there. And he’s a big part of why their defense is as good as it is. You just know he’s back there.”
They say knowledge is power. For the Warriors, perhaps knowledge pertaining to Williams “being back there” serves as a warning — or a dissuasion. Either way, it’s certainly power for the Celtics. And as long as Williams can power through his injury struggles and appear as able as he was in Game 3, it’s a power that could define the remainder of Boston’s run for the better.