Head coach Joe Mazzulla was cagey pre-game about re-inserting Robert Williams back into the starting lineup. With the stakes of a do-or-die Game 6 on the road, you would have thought that he was just making a change between soup or salad as an appetizer.
“Just to give us a different look. At his best, Rob gives us a lift, especially on the defensive end,” Mazzulla said.
But in a series that has been defined by adjustments and adjustments to adjustments, Williams rejoining Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford — the vaunted fivesome that fielded one of the nastiest defenses in the modern NBA — was a monster move and the catalyst to Boston’s 95-86 win against the 76ers to force a Game 7 on Sunday.
His teammates knew it. Marcus Smart said he was “ecstatic” with the lineup change.
"I'm glad that Joe made that adjustment... what a difference."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 12, 2023
Al Horford talks Rob Williams in the starting lineup pic.twitter.com/4zJlQVUDmj
“I was happy that that happened. We just know the impact that Rob has on the court,” Horford said.
With the double big frontcourt, it empowers the perimeter defenders to be more aggressive on the ball. To wit, in Philly’s last two wins, they scored 116 points in Game 4 and 115 points in Game 5; on Thursday night, they mustered nearly 30 points less. James Harden was 4-for-16, missing all six of his three-pointers and was only able to get to the line five times with the paint packed in.
“We put him in the same role as he was last year where he could just be, trust his instincts, and make plays,” Brown said after Williams was a team-high +18 (tied with former Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart).
"Ready to take it on home."@tvabby caught up exclusively with Rob Williams after Game 6 pic.twitter.com/gNO4Wlq32x— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 12, 2023
Williams was told on Wednesday night that he’d start Game 6, telling him to set the tone and keep the intensity up. In his first six-minute stint in the opening quarter, he registered two dunks and a weak side block on Tyrese Maxey, pushing the Celtics to an early double-digit lead.
Williams’ game wasn’t without its warts. He got caught a few times biting on pump fakes and not acting quick enough offensively on the catch. Forget about his 10 points and nine rebounds on the night. After averaging just over 18 minutes a game in the series, his nearly 28 minutes in Boston’s biggest win of the season are indicative of what kind of x-factor and ceiling-raiser he can be.
A +31.0 net rating for Boston during Robert Williams III's floor time tonight, including a 74.1 defensive rating.— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) May 12, 2023
Rob (11) and Al (12) accounted for 23 of Boston's 38 contested shots. That's more than Philadelphia's contested shots total (20).
After averaging 41 points in the paint over their last two games, Embiid and the Sixers scored just 32 and lost the rebounding battle 50-38. Philadelphia has feasted on second chance points, but scored just eight in their potential close out game.
”He’s the kind of guy who brings a level of joy to his teammates,” Mazzulla said of RWIII’s impact. After a Game 5 let down at TD Garden, a dour pall had fallen over the team and the fans and in a game that can get bogged down in schematics and analytics, the Celtics seemingly needed something to lift their spirits.
If Smart is the heart and soul of the locker room, Williams is its spirit animal, the 6'9 freak of nature that brings the best out of the teammates. Boston didn’t have him for the majority of the season and he was supplanted in the starting lineup by Derrick White (another candidate for Boston bellwether). And when the Celtics lost themselves somewhere in the second round, they knew where to go all along to find their joy.