The Celtics played Al Horford and Robert Williams together nearly every night last season. Not even a mediocre start to the season through January and offensive spacing concerns discouraged Ime Udoka from pairing them. He believed in their early positive defensive returns, and by the end of the season it emerged as the league’s best starting lineup, outscoring opponents by +24.6 points per 100 possessions with a 118.8 offensive rating.
Joe Mazzulla used that group briefly in rotation with Robert Williams III coming off the bench after he returned last month. While the group didn’t hit the ground running offensively, they immediately held opponents below 100 points per 100 possessions. The potential to turn defense into offense flashed scoring potential above the historic five-out lineup approach from early this season.
On Monday, Williams III reunited with the starters in place of Marcus Smart, who sat with a knee injury. Horford landed an alley-oop to Williams III on the third possession, Al’s first assist of the season to Rob in his 10th game back.
“Having two bigs on the floor changes things. It changes your defence. Having both of them on the floor, your defense is gonna be, probably, at its best when them two are on the floor together,” Brogdon told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at shootaround Wednesday. “Then offensively, they have such different skillsets. To have someone that puts pressure on the rim, but also have someone who spreads the floor, but both guard the way they do, it’s definitely a blessing.”
Brogdon didn’t know if the Celtics will continue to start Horford and Williams III together. They likely won’t against New Orleans and Brooklyn, with Williams III questionable and Horford sitting out of every back-to-back so far this season. That staggering and management of both players requires that the other be available not only in the flow of each game, but each game night with Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin losing favor recently.
Mazzulla, however, expressed intrigue before Williams III even returned in describing how the Celtics can win in multiple ways. He closed Saturday’s win in San Antonio by pairing Horford and Williams III instead of Brogdon, who score 23 points in 28 minutes. Williams III reached 22 minutes off the bench, as he did on Monday as a starter. It’s not necessarily a minutes limit, and more a reflection of the big man’s continued conditioning.
“We’re able to play different ways,” Mazzulla said in San Antonio. “The one thing we have to work on is our late game execution with our big lineup, which is something we haven’t seen. Just getting back to that, but it was good. It was good to have (Williams III) and he gave us a lot on both ends.”
The duo outscored the Spurs 5-2 before halftime, losing three points on free throws, on Saturday while forcing two turnovers and holding San Antonio to 1-for-5 shooting. The fourth quarter finished less smoothly, allowing the Spurs to hit 4-of-5 to tie the game, escaping thanks to a last-second lob to Williams III and a Tatum fadeaway for the win.
Williams III couldn’t close on Monday, playing nearly the entire first quarter after getting introduced to massive applause. He roamed away from Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams to cut off driving lanes, erasing Dosunmu’s layup try after he beat Jaylen Brown back door. Horford, who returned to pick-and-roll coverage, noted that Williams helped him immensely on the defensive end.
On offense, Williams III got involved in the team’s off-ball screening actions and even some Spain pick-and-roll with Horford. Horford noted the Celtics’ coaches made play calls to integrate Williams III on Monday.
“I think it’s just knowing your personnel, knowing how other teams are going to guard you,” Brogdon said. “It’s really how the other team is guarding you, whether they’re going to drop back, whether they’re switching or not, one through five, or one through four. That’s the challenge of having a five man like Al that can pop and a five man like Rob that rolls and puts pressure. The defense has to constantly adjust.”
Brogdon also noted the Celtics needed to find Williams III in the short roll when the spacing isn’t there or the defense expects him to attack the rim. The high post positioning empowered Williams III to dish a pair of assists.
The return of double-big also bolstered a lackluster offensive rebounding team, who started the year with a 24.5 OREB%, but posted a 30.8 OREB% that would rank seventh among NBA teams this season. Williams III alone averages a 13.7 OREB%, which ranks fourth among players who average at least 19 minutes.
Williams III’s impact waned after 19 minutes though, and he played sparingly in the second half before Grant Williams and Horford closed. He remains on a management plan, and his first start showed the need for his conditioning to improve to reach 30 minutes. That could be a prohibitive factor in the short term that prevents Williams III from starting more often.
Other questions emerged too, like how often the Celtics shift between small ball and large lineups? Do they eventually see themselves playing big in the playoffs, and how much do they need to work with Horford and Williams III on the floor to prepare for that?
The backup five question remains intriguing too, with the trade deadline one month away. Does Mazzulla trust Kornet and Griffin enough to play in the postseason if they start a double-big lineup?
“(It takes) a lot of pressure off me, off all of us,” Horford said. “We kind of just rely on (Williams III) and his activity and his energy. I just really enjoy playing alongside him, so I was glad that he was able to get a start tonight and we can continue to build that chemistry.”