Robert Williams played all of the playoffs despite knee pain, and some games were better than others.
Just two months ago, Williams required surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his left knee that sidelined him for the start of the postseason. With a time frame of four to six weeks before a potential return, the Celtics had no idea what version of their all-defensive team center they would get when he got back on the ground.
Williams missed five games even after making his debut in the 2022 playoffs as Boston tried to manage his workload in the earlier rounds, but the 24-year-old has made himself available for every game of the NBA Finals so far.
Some nights Williams looked like he could barely move. At others, he’s impacted play in the same way the Celtics have seen it all season. Regardless of how he plays, Williams’ toughness and resilience cannot be overstated.
In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with Boston’s chance to retake the series lead from Golden State, Williams delivered his most impressive game of the entire postseason.
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How Robert Williams made the difference in Game 3
It took him just 26 minutes to display a level of energy and physicality that the Warriors frontcourt just couldn’t match. Williams may have only scored eight points, but his 10 rebounds (three offense), four blocks and three steals sent a message to Golden State that he owns the paint. His plus-21 +/- was the best in the game and his 38.0 net rating was second only to Payton Pritchard, who logged under 10 minutes.
His efforts played a significant role in the game-changing difference between the Celtics and Warriors numbers inside. Boston won the Battle of the Boards (47-31), points in the suit (52-26), and second chance points (22-11).
Additionally, Williams’ rim protection has resulted in the Warriors lowest points in the paint average of all series in this postseason with a big gap.
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Even when he’s playing on a good foot, Williams’ athleticism and verticality have resulted in some volleyball blocks when Golden State tries to get shots around the hoop.
While his ailing knee has hampered his mobility on perimeter switches and limited the number of quick twitch dunks and lobs we’ve seen all year, there’s no denying that Williams’ presence on the floor for the Celtics mostly was positive.
But how will his knee react with just one day off between Games 3 and 4?
Robert Williams’ injury management and how it will impact Game 4
In Game 3, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka changed his rotations to benefit William’s availability.
While he typically let Williams run long stretches in the first and third quarters, it meant he would close those frames on the bench. In Game 3, Udoka Williams made early substitutions in the first and third quarters, allowing him to check in again in the dying minutes of both periods. He also gave Williams an extended second-quarter break before halftime, allowing him to stay well-rested on the ground in the fourth quarter until the outcome of the game was decided.
Given Williams’ effectiveness in just 26 minutes, it’s safe to say Udoka will take a similar approach in Game 4 depending on how the 24-year-old’s knee reacts on the day off.
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“He doesn’t do much physically between (games) so you don’t really get a feeling until he warms up really well,” Udoka said of William’s knee after Game 3.
“Sometimes it feels good the day after. Sometimes it hurts more on the second day. So it comes and goes. So we’re aware of listing him (as questionable) and really investigating him if he’s feeling worse.”
Williams also spoke about the process of treating his knee during the playoffs.
“It was tough. Throwing everything at it,” Williams said after Game 3. “Usually the day after the game obviously it hurts more, the adrenaline goes down. But we did some different things today, got on the bike a little earlier before the game. I benefited from that.”
However, the young center knows what’s at stake and is happy to play through the pain for the potential reward.
“Yeah, sure,” he said when asked if playing in the final made it easier to get over his injury.
“Obviously I know what I’m playing for. If I take the risk of playing and getting this far then obviously I have more work to do but it’s definitely worth it.”
How Williams’ knee reacts between Games 3 and 4 will have a massive impact on this series. If he plays like he did in Game 3, the Celtics could be one win away from their first NBA title since 2008.