The Boston Celtics have a key decision to make Friday night at center position as Robert Williams III only had a single day to rest his troubled knee between games.
The fourth-year big man has been a revelation for the Celtics this season, excelling defensively in Boston’s 116-100 win in Game 3 with four blocks, three steals and a team-high plus 21 on the floor.
But he struggled with a knee injury during the Celtics’ wonderful postseason run that now only gives them a home win in Game 4 – Live on Sky Sports Arena & Main Event from 1.45am overnight – from giving yourself three attempts to win the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The short gap between games three and four of the series presents the Celtics with a decision as neither team nor player want to risk worsening the pain or damage and rule him out for the rest. Do you play Williams? dump him? Working with a minute limit? There are options to consider…
Whichever they choose, it’s fair to say Williams’ left knee has become an important player in three games of the 2022 NBA Finals. When it hurts – a lingering discomfort following surgery in late March to repair a torn meniscus, compounded by semi-regular use – Williams noticeably limp around the court and plays with limited effectiveness, if at all.
When the knee is loose and causing less discomfort for the Louisiana native, Williams can be decidedly disruptive as a defender, offering elite rim protection while also providing a strong alley-oop option for the Celtics offense. He was both in Game 3.
The Celtics’ injury reports have consistently ranked his condition as “questionable,” but when the knee cooperates or Williams pushes through to make it so, good things for Boston, too, tend to go from questionable to likely.
With a turnaround time of just 48 hours, the Celtics’ regime of keeping him available will be put to the test. Williams gave NBA.com a detailed look at the treatment he endures on a daily basis.
“Usually start with a deep tissue massage, behind my calf, in front of my knee,” he said. “Calf stretch. Get some ice cream, maybe ice cream once or twice. Wait a few hours.
The knee bothers him more to move sideways, he said, than to run or jump. He and the Celtics are cautious and remain confident no further harm will be done by playing. After all, there are no more than four games left before a long R&R opportunity.
“I’ve been playing like this for two or three weeks. I’m used to it,” Williams said. “We’re in the final, man.”
In the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game, he hit a Stephen Curry floater that might have veered into goalie territory but still confused the Warriors. He closed on Klay Thompson’s 3-point attempt and pushed/limped back to get the rebound.
A few times, Williams even seemed to be on the minds of Golden State shooters, who would think twice and either pass the ball or switch to avoid his ability to block or change their shots. It’s usually the kind of pre-emptive intimidation associated with the likes of Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert or world-class Dikembe Mutombo. That Williams earns similar respect when playing on one and a half legs speaks to his worth and determination.
“Yes, Robert changes everything,” said teammate Al Horford. “It’s great to see he can play and show some of the things he can do, how he can impact the game.
“Just his presence, the people in the league, everyone, we all know each other. He’s able to block jump shots, people get on the trail, they have to think about it just because he’s there. Even on the border he’s doing a good job of getting out there and competing.
“I know he’s obviously going through a lot of stuff and I’m just really happy that he’s succeeding right now.”
On the other end of that luck spectrum would be Curry and his fellow warriors. It wasn’t just Williams’ defense or his eight points, ten rebounds, three steals and four blocks in Game 3. It’s the fact that Golden State’s swirling, high-octane and deep attack can often bench opposing big men outright. But Williams has managed to stay grounded more than most when the knee allows.
“We talked about just being aware of where he is,” Curry said. “Because especially depending on who he’s guarding, he can kind of come out of nowhere. There’s a game early in the fourth, I got past Grant Williams thinking I had daylight to get a shot and you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could disrupt that shot.
“There are situations where we can use that to our advantage because he’s going to be aggressive. He will keep trying to play the ball. They have to be aware of where he is because that’s what he’s doing for them on that end of the ground.”
In his current state, Williams still has a lot to learn. For example, he left Klay Thompson too much room on the right wing for a 3-point bucket well into the third quarter, earning Udoka’s wrath.
But he’s come a long way from Texas A&M’s 27th pick in the 2018 draft, which earned his nickname “Time Lord” for bouts of tardiness or no-shows in his rookie year. Despite only playing 61 games this season, Williams was selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team.
“I think he’s always a high-level, pretty instinctive guy,” Udoka said Thursday. “Some things we asked him to do were different than he’s had to do throughout his career. I think the amount of substitutions and perimeter play is just great, but he’s a guy who can do it.”
Sitting on the benches at Philadelphia and Brooklyn for the last two seasons, Udoka knew how careful both teams were to stay away from Williams.
“The rim guard stands out, but his ability to move his feet on the touchline and the luxury of taking him off the ball at times,” the coach said, allows the Celtics to occasionally pair Williams and Horford.
Of Boston’s first 14 playoff games this spring, Williams missed seven. However, he has competed in the last seven, logging at least 14 minutes each time. If he can stay grounded long enough in this series, it will force Golden State to find answers offensively that they haven’t been able to before.
Whether he can stay fit and whether the Warriors can find those answers could be a key factor in deciding who will be declared champion within the next week to 10 days.
Watch the NBA Finals exclusively on Sky Sports – Check out the list of games here and subscribe to see the live action. (NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner also contributed to this report)