Robert Williams returned to the Celtics’ lineup last month with the understanding he’d come off the bench and ease into action. His first game back against Orlando already followed a west coast road trip where he joined the team in hopes to play, participating in a high-flying, albeit exhausting, practice that showed his readiness and need for conditioning.
Joe Mazzulla and Williams agreed that’d be the major focus, but neither indicated a specific minute limit when he suited up for the first time. Williams averaged 19.4 minutes per game in his first nine appearances, resting last Tuesday in Oklahoma City, indicating some kind of management that Damon Stoudamire alluded to during his two-game stint as Celtics head coach. Now, after Williams’ steady progression and best performance yet with 10 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in San Antonio, the Celtics’ stars are calling more Rob minutes.
“We need Rob. Rob is amazing,” Brown told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at shootaround on Monday. “Rob has a special ability on offense and defense, as we’ve been able to see a little bit this year, but especially last year. So the more we integrate him and use him, the better our team will be. We got off to a hot start with other guys playing a different type of ball, but I think down the line and in the playoffs, having Rob as a critical part of our offense and defense is necessary. I think that’s something we should take a look at as we get closer to the playoffs”
Williams didn’t feel his best in the performance compared to others, he said after Boston beat San Antonio, but hasn’t mentioned any issues following each game he spoke at since returning. He previously explained that the coaching staff will ask how he feels, and Williams told them he doesn’t want to come out. Al Horford typically closed over Rob.
That changed Friday when they both took the floor for crunch time, in part to get last year’s starting lineup some experience playing together to close a game and at Jayson Tatum’s pressing. Williams pulverized shots and dominated the offensive boards during the first half.
“It was funny, because he got subbed out, I think it was in the fourth, seven minute mark,” Tatum said postgame. “I asked him, I’m like, ‘yo, are you still on a minute restriction,’ and he was like, ‘nah,’ and I was like, ‘alright, get your a** back in the game.’ 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. I’m gonna start, so I would like Rob to start, but whatever’s best for the team, he’ll do that. As much as I can be on the floor with him as possible, I think, makes us better.”
Mazzulla said he could change his mind on Williams’ role when asked if Rob would presumably become a starter again later in the season. Derrick White remained the fifth starter so far, giving the Celtics the ability to play five-out offense and maintain their spot atop the offensive rating leaders in the NBA. Starting Horford allowed the pair to stagger their minutes on the floor and relegate Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin to no minutes. The team traded Noah Vonleh on Thursday ahead of his contract guarantee on Thursday.
Williams, however, already has a case for being the third best player on the team behind Brown and Tatum, or at least the most impactful in his minutes, yet averages the eighth-most playing time. The Celtics score 119.7 points per possession when he plays, best on the team, and only Luke Kornet, Sam Hauser and White boast better defensive ratings. That does create an intriguing debate between White (+11.1 net rating) and Williams (+10.8). Both told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog they don’t care if they start or come off the bench.
White once spaced the floor for the Celtics at an elite level, but is shooting 26.1% from three since December began. He’s a better point guard and arguably better screener than Williams, though Williams’ rolling gravity surpasses any of White’s abilities to draw defense. Williams plays the best defense on the team, and starting him allows him more time to gel with starters. So far, Williams is averaging 4.7 minutes per game with Horford (+4.3 net rating), 7.5 with Smart (+19.0), 11.4 with Brown (+8.9) and 14.9 with Tatum (+8.8). That should change.
The Celtics, more than anything, know they need an energy boost and received one from Williams in Texas. They lacked his presence in San Antonio. His leap from the post to block a Malaki Branham three-pointer and run in for a layup the other way captivated the Celtics. It also raised the continued concern with Williams, who underwent two knee surgeries in 2022, admitting he felt his knee buckle on the transition run, forcing him to lay the ball in.
Monday’s game provides a potential opportunity to start Williams in place of Smart, who’s doubtful with a left knee contusion he suffered in the win over San Antonio.
“I think it depends on what’s best for our team at the time, what’s best for (Rob),” Mazzulla said last month. “We’ve fluctuated the starting lineup a little bit throughout the year, which has given us some flexibility, but we’ve found some consistency in what we have now and I think it’s just a matter of if it makes sense we’ll do it, and if it doesn’t, we won’t. It’s got nothing to do with (Rob’s health), it’s more what’s best for the team and where we’re at.”