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The Robert Williams effect

For three weeks, the Celtics didn’t look like themselves. And then #44 came back.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Sporting a bulky knee brace around his left knee and being a man of few words, you wouldn’t think that Robert Williams was such an integral part of the Boston Celtics at their best. His stat line of 4 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks belie his overwhelming influence in a 120-95 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. His humble postgame interview doesn’t exactly scream, “this is the most important player on the team”:

And yet after two games and more so, three weeks of uninspired ball, it’s hard not to think that Williams is not at least the missing link between this Celtics team being good and being a legitimate contender.

“Rob is fantastic. Rob is the key,” Jaylen Brown said after Williams logged just over fifteen minutes in his second game back from a strained hamstring. “We gotta keep Rob healthy, keep his mindset strong, keep finding him when he gets to the basket. He’s such an impactful player on both ends of the floor. Anytime he’s out there, he makes our team a lot better.”

A very small sample size of course, but Williams’ impact is undeniable. The Kings and Pacers have top-10 offenses since the All-Star break and the Celtics crushed them both in blowout fashion in back-to-back games.

For Boston, Williams changes the entire geometry of the court when he’s on the floor. As a vertical space in the offense, he’s pulling the bigs in the paint and diversifying the Celtics’ three-point heavy approach. With defenses having to account for the springy center, there’s more space and air to cover. A few weeks ago, head coach Joe Mazzulla lamented that not all layups are easy and that sometimes, even a not-so-open three is a better shot; with Williams lurking around the restricted area, drivers can find him rather than putting up a contested two.

However, Williams is most felt on defense. The Second Team All-Defense center still doesn’t have his legs under him yet, but he’s already wreaking havoc.

“His rim protection,” Mazzulla said of where Williams is most felt. “One of the things he got better at in the second half was his defensive presence, recognizing who he was guarding, and being able to help early. When he’s there, he brings that presence at the rim. He was able to help on drives.”

Last season, one of the biggest adjustments that flipped the season for C’s was using Williams as a sort of free safety that could freelance away from the ball. If an offense could penetrate Boston’s switching perimeter defense, they’d have to be wary of the Time Lord’s 7’6” wingspan and 40” vertical.

“Essentially like a safety net, knowing that you got him protecting the rim, blocking shots, altering shots, deterring guys away from attacking. He helps us out a lot in that way,” Jayson Tatum said.

Schematically, it’s obvious what Williams brings to the game. Culturally and mentally, he means even more.

“When you have a guy like that, it obviously jolts your defensive joy to be a little bit more aggressive,” Mazzulla said. “You just feel that. Rob just has an intangible where guys just feel protected because of his ability to do that. It definitely ups our guys’ intensity defensively.”

“It’s an excitement because of the type of person Rob is and the type of player that he is,” Mazzulla added.

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