BOSTON — Robert Williams III was dribbling toward Jayson Tatum when he quickly stunned the Raptors by hooking a pass over his shoulder. Sam Hauser — “Tax Man” according to Williams III — caught the ball cutting back door on O.G. Anunoby, wide open for one of Williams III’s two assists in the win.
The slick pass was part of a growing confidence from Williams and more so, his teammates and coaching staff, that he can do more heading into the playoffs.
That side of Williams’ game had noticeably ramped down since his return from a second knee surgery in one year. His assists dropped nearly in half. The sight of him firing passes out of the high post once made Celtics fans dream of a player impactful beyond the blocks and lobs that powered Boston runs. Unlocking more of Williams III’s offense could legitimately make him a top-shelf NBA player.
Williams III, instead, long felt content to play a complementary role in the Celtics’ success. Teammates only asked for the best of what he already offered: rolling dunks, rim protection and put backs. However, Joe Mazzulla became the first to ask for more from Williams III when he does take the floor. He heard Mazzulla yell as he lined up Pascal Siakam one-on-one in the third quarter late in the shot clock: “Score the f***ing ball.”
“There are times where we’re gonna need those dump-off points, me sealing and getting a dunk,” Williams said. “It just reassures me that we’re gonna need those things.”
The Celtics got eight points, nine rebounds, two steals and three blocks along with Williams III’s pair of feeds for scores in an extended 25-minute run. Mazzulla told NBC Sports Boston pre-game that Boston would accept Williams III’s highest-level play over short stretches approaching the playoffs, the strategy since he returned from an eight-game absence with a hamstring injury he’d never suffered before. It led to his best play yet.
“These last two games, I saw a different Rob on the offensive end,” Mazzulla said.
“He did a great job ducking in on cross-matches and that’s the little stuff he has to bring. His intentionality on offense, we need him to be involved, because he has the ability to screen and get guys open. Depending on how they’re guarding him, if they’re going to switch, we have to be able to punish that with him and our guys feel comfortable throwing it to him versus smaller guys. He just has to be dynamic on the offensive end. It’s something he works at.”
The temptation is to play their dazzling center more, but injury history always feels like the key difference between the Celtics emerging as a cut above the league and standing among several other contenders.
In order to mitigate some of those concerns, Mazzulla has diversified his team’s approach. Boston won 6-of-7 games Williams III appeared in entering the playoffs, but the team also thrived through a 21-5 start while he recovered from surgery.
The Celtics have shifted from their overwhelming size a year ago to an offensive mindset where screening, shooting and spacing became the focus. When Williams III returned, he felt the difference in pace and positioning offensively.
“Missing a bunch of games at the start of the year was not ideal,” Brad Stevens said in his end-of-season state of the union. “It did force us to morph into a team that can do other things and give us a different way of playing, so there was some advantage to that, and then he’s come back and played well, and I’m really encouraged that he played the minutes he played over the last couple of games.”
While Mazzulla didn’t commit to any lineup or rotation for the playoffs, a +12.2 net rating for White’s starting unit vs. -12.4 for Williams III’s should signal to the Celtics that they should stick with what they did to close the season. Last year’s starters didn’t have enough time to gel, and staggering him with Al Horford limits how many minutes the rest of the centers need to contribute. It also best sets up Williams III to close some games.
Malcolm Brogdon, Williams III and whichever additional forward steps up could produce devastating bench runs, but Mazzulla’s call for more from the big man when he does play serve as a reminder of how Williams III’s injury hurt himself and the team the most. He took steps back this season in terms of activity offensively and the summer didn’t allow for development. So, Williams leaned into more of the same.
“I feel like different matchups and playing against different teams calls for different plays,” Williams III said. “We play a lot faster this year. The role I have to play is getting these guys shots, rebounding, set screens, getting them open, which is a role I love to play, but like you said, different matchups, different teams and hopefully we’ll see a few more lob plays.”
After just 35 regular season games this year, it could be too late to incorporate more of Williams III’s game into Boston’s offense. But after seeing the Celtics prioritize getting Williams III the ball early and often against Toronto, it proved encouraging enough that maybe there is still another gear he could hit in the playoffs.
Tatum hit him for a rolling finish less than two minutes into Friday’s game. Horford led him in transition after a second quarter stop, hitting him with Will Barton in his way knowing the bigger Williams III could score through him. Later, Derrick White tossed an alley-oop that Williams III tapped in off glass while Jakob Poetl fouled him.
“I want to see him catch it in the paint, be able to take a dribble and finish with contact,” Mazzulla said. “It’s probably on me just as much as anybody else, he has the tendency to be passive on the offensive end.”
“(I’m) screaming at the top of my lungs,” he added on how he tries to get Rob the ball. “I did that tonight.”
After Quin Snyder lamented the Hawks getting caught in cross-matches against Miami in the play-in game, the Celtics will surely make finding Williams III on the break part of their plan.
Williams III can get by with a unique mix of athleticism and feel for the game. Horford lauded Williams III’s maturity, so he doesn’t feel the need to say much to him, but Horford does occasionally remind Williams III to stay aggressive. Mazzulla doesn’t want him taking jump shots, so those will have to wait. They may not even need to enter the picture for him to reach his full form. That’ll come from him finding an aggressive approach, becoming a threat, which opens up his favorite play — the pass.
“I love to pass the ball, I know my job for sure,” Williams III told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media. “I love passing, man, I guess I can say that, but there are times where we do these need those easy two seals and two dunks a game to take pressure off our scorers.”