Robert Williams enjoyed a breakout season last year, anchoring the Boston Celtics defense - a unit that was the best in the NBA. One torn meniscus, two surgeries, and a few missed months later, he’s back to dominating on that side of the basketball.
Boston took down the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night 121-116, but it wasn’t smooth sailing for the C’s. They stumbled late in the fourth quarter, allowing former Celtic Josh Richardson to heat up and help the Spurs back into the game. And when things were crumbling, Jayson Tatum looked to Williams.
“It was funny because he got subbed out, I think it was like in the fourth, eight-minute mark, maybe seven. And I asked him, I’m like, ‘Yo, you still on a minute restriction?’ And he was like, ‘Nah.’ And I was like, ‘Well alright, get your a** back in the game.’”
"I asked him, 'are you still on minute restriction?' and he was like 'nah.'— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 8, 2023
and I was like 'well get your ass back in the game.'"
Jayson Tatum talks about wanting as much time as possible on the floor with Rob Williams ️ #BleedGreen pic.twitter.com/p9VxgoFFyo
The Celtics big man ended the night with a double-double - 10 points and 11 rebounds - to go along with three assists, two steals, and four blocks. He shot 5-of-6 from the field.
Against the Spurs, Williams’ versatility was put on full display. He thrives in the off-ball role, but he’s also an elite on-ball defender. Williams’ freakish athleticism allows him to keep up with big men and guards alike on the perimeter.
There was one play, in particular, that caught the eyes of many. Spurs rookie Malaki Branham got the ball near the end of the first half with roughly five seconds left on the shot clock. He immediately shot it, but Williams - jumping from the free throw line to the top of the key - blocked Branham’s shot and got a transition bucket.
It was an incredible display of athleticism and skill, and after the game, Williams said that he was surprised that Branham actually shot the ball.
“I’m really surprised he shot the ball. Most people know I’m coming to block that. He won’t try it again.”
Williams played 21:45 against the Spurs, his second-highest minutes total of the season. The only game he earned more court time in this season was Boston’s loss to the Indiana Pacers, where he logged 22:18.
During his short stint as Joe Mazzulla’s replacement, Celtics coach Damon Stoudamire revealed that the Celtics have been “given, medically, the minutes that he should play” and that, while they need him to play, “more than anything [they] need him to be comfortable.”
He’s been able to make a huge impact off the bench for the Celtics, but Tatum is hoping to see the big man back in the starting five at some point.
“Whether he starts or comes off the bench, [I] just want him on the floor. Want him healthy. And want to be on the floor with him at the same time as much as possible. So, you know, I’m gonna start, so I would like Rob to start, but, you know, whatever’s best for the team, he’ll do that. And, you know, as much as I can be on the court with him as possible, you know, I think [that] makes us better.”
Williams started every game he appeared in for the Celtics last season (61, a career-high) and played 29.6 minutes per game (also a career-high). Boston inked him to a four-year extension heading into last year, and it paid off in a big way. They’re heavily invested in his future, so ensuring his long-term health is essential.
That being said, Williams has yet to sniff 25 minutes in a game yet this year. And when he was in the opening lineup last year, he, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Al Horford made up the best starting five in basketball in terms of net rating. Unleashing that unit full-time could help Boston solidify themselves as title favorites.
For now, he’s settled into a bench role and focused on providing his elite intensity when the Celtics need it most.
"Coming off the bench I feel like I've been able to be decisive on where we need to insert energy."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 8, 2023
Rob Williams talks coming off the bench and managing his minutes #Celtics pic.twitter.com/K5ROGi2RyI
“I enjoy playing the game. Coming off the bench, I feel like I’ve been able to be decisive on when we need to insert energy. I’m just watching everything. But like I said, whether it’s starting or coming off the bench, I’m here.”
Maybe the plan is to conserve his energy and health for the postseason. Maybe the Celtics are waiting until later in the regular season. But no matter when they decide to unleash Williams, he’ll be ready.