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Robert Williams III’s health is a swing factor looming over NBA Finals

Robert Williams appeared to labor through the Celtics’ Game 2 loss after a standout performance in Boston’s series-opening win. Truly day-to-day, the swings in Williams’ play could swing these NBA Finals.

NBA: Finals-Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

SAN FRANCISCO — Robert Williams III doesn’t show off in practice as much, one of Al Horford’s suggestions upon rejoining the Celtics. Save the slams for the game.

So Williams’ lack of burst and athletic displays at the final practice before the Celtics opened the NBA Finals didn’t explicitly forecast how he’d look when the teams took the floor at Chase Center on Thursday. He moved gingerly, but flashed smiles as he mouthed the lyrics to Lil Wayne’s Surf Swag blasting overhead. Despite the caution he displayed and his longstanding questionable status, he opened Game 1 chasing down Andrew Wiggins and blocking him from behind.

Three days later, Williams fell over along the same baseline when Marcus Smart drove into him four minutes into the second half. Williams stayed down for several moments before slowly rising to his feet and exiting the game 21 seconds later. The Warriors sent Andrew Wiggins after him, someone audibly signaling Williams III couldn’t move. He wouldn’t return, replaced by Daniel Theis as Golden State took off for its series-tying 25-2 run just over three minutes later.

Williams III, truly day-to-day in his health and by extension his performance, projected to be a swing factor entering the series. Through two games, he’s thrust the team in positive and negative directions — with Boston not knowing until game day how he’ll respond to playing in the game before.

“The most important thing is the time off in-between games,” Ime Udoka told CelticsBlog between Games 1 and 2. “Time off after the Miami series. So that’s how he reacts best obviously, rest and treatment. Not having (games) every other day (for the first time) since Game 3 of Milwaukee, that should benefit him going forward. From there, it’s just discussion. I’ve let him know pretty much, ‘hey, play the game. If you don’t need to practice, shootaround, I don’t need to see you on the court for the rest of the season until game time if that benefits you.’ So he kind of gets what he needs as far as that, watches what he needs to watch and it’s really more mental than physical.”

Williams III utilized ice and compression sleeves between the long flights from Boston to Miami and back before flying cross-country to San Francisco. The nearly four days off after Game 7 featured round-the-clock treatment that culminated in a performance that more closely mirrored Williams III at 100% than any other since his meniscus surgery. He blocked four shots, converted all four of his own and grabbed six rebounds. His presence in the paint became a deterrent to Steph Curry’s dribble penetration. On offense, he provided Jaylen Brown an outlet via lob to cap a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter that sparked a 27-point turnaround for the Celtics.

The Celtics want to assert their brand of basketball on the series, but it’s unclear how long they’ll be able to remain in their double big starting lineup and normal rotations with Williams III’s status uncertain. Nearly three days between Games 2 and 3 provide some hope for a Williams III resurgence, though Udoka has already needed to limit the center’s minutes to roughly 20-25 minutes in the first two games.

They would deal with the consequences, he said, if they had to push him longer with Daniel Theis minutes sprinkling back in to the game plan to fill the gap.

“I felt like the reduced minutes helps obviously because with the injury I had, not being able to take the time off, being it’s such an important time of the season,” Williams III said before the series. “(The pain and swelling) is manageable, kind of been getting in a routine the past couple of games of what I’ve got to go through just to get myself ready to play.”

Udoka’s mind-over-matter pushing of Williams III comes paired with an acknowledgement of what Williams III is dealing with. The removal of part of his meniscus has robbed Williams of an absorber to his springy style and whatever blow Giannis Antetokounmpo dealt him last month have hindered his production at times with a triple threat of swelling, pain and restricted movement. With Boston three wins away from a title, it’s all hands on deck and the Celtics medical staff have turned into a pit crew, treating Williams until it inevitably flares up again.

Throughout the playoff run, Udoka has kept in close contact with his players, including Williams III to show his appreciation for the efforts he’s making. Williams III needed to miss Game 3 of the Heat series, but other than that averaged 21.6 minutes per game over the last three weeks.

He reached rock bottom in Game 7 against Miami — his fourth outing in seven days — when he misplayed a put back, got stripped in the lane on a dump-off, threw a pass out-of-bounds trying to get it right back to Al Horford after catching it, and got beat by Max Strus on the infamous step back three that got reversed by the NBA Replay Center minutes later. Udoka, upon pulling Williams III early in the fourth quarter, patted him on the chest for his efforts.

“We’re in communication all the time,” Udoka told CelticsBlog before Game 6 of the Eastern Confernce Finals. “Whether it’s Marcus or Rob, appreciating them playing through injury and soreness, everyone’s on the same page and we understand the opportunity in front of us.”

The Celtics believe Williams III’s presence, however limited, can still be a benefit and that’s been evident on the high end of his production. He blocked three shots, including two corner three-point attempts, as part of a historic Game 5 shutdown of the Heat, racking up seven in Games 4-6 while scoring 10 points per game on 78.6% shooting. Udoka continued to see possessions where Boston missed him throughout the series.

Williams III looks hesitant at times offensively though, whether firing passes out to the perimeter right after he catches them, floating instead of actively getting involved in pick-and-roll action, or his shot totals falling over the last three games. He’s no longer involved in the split actions and high post creation that led to his first career triple-double in late December, recording only his third assist since the Bucks series on Sunday. His attempt to squeeze a pass to a cutting Payton Pritchard that ended in a miss inside gave a glimpse into what Boston could be missing there. It’s difficult to develop that through inconsistent run.

Udoka will need to decide quickly if sparse bursts of Horford and Williams III, with some Daniel Theis second unit rotations, will provide more than small ball units against a Warriors team that presents different challenges to Boston’s defense than any they’ve seen so far. With Williams not at 100%, matching up with Golden State rather than trying to impose their size on them might be their best strategy. Regardless, the team has rallied behind their starting center as he fights to stay on the court.

“Rob’s been dealing with some knee things,” Tatum told CelticsBlog during the ECF. “Just keeping his spirits lifted, his confidence high and everybody being there for him, because we know how hard he works and how bad he wants to be out there to help us and obviously how much we need him.”