Robert Williams III was removed from the Boston Celtics Center less than 10 weeks after surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee. He suffered a bone bruise in the same knee in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and joined the field in Game 2 of the NBA Finals when Marcus Smart hit that knee during the third quarter. The huge 24-year-old gives his all, and it might be too much.
The two big Boston squads are being crushed by the Golden State Warriors. With two Williams, Horford, Daniel Theis, or Grant Williams on the ground, the Celtics edged out by 33 points in 64 minutes through two games of the series. They beat the Warriors by 26 in the remaining 32 minutes.
Robert Williams and Horford were a dominant duo in the regular season. Along with Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup, they won all 100 possessions averaging 24.6 points and finished the regular season with a score of 27-7 when he took the field together. With Williams swinging in the playoffs, they are 4-4 and have 13.9 points per 100 possessions.
It was even worse against Golden State. The Warriors buried the Celtics with an 18-point lead over Williams-Horford at the start of the first and third quarters. Only the contested shooting offer to start Game 2 kept this deficit from being greater. Given that the first-half margin for both games was two points, Boston was digging out of the holes they dug at the start of each half.
All of this is resolved if Robert Williams is somehow healthy overnight. Otherwise, it remains a problem.
The Celtics started Grant Williams in place of Robert Williams in the final four games of the second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, winning three of them by a total of 49 points, but with the other four starting Novices, Grant Williams was minus-28 in 152 minutes—Boston’s most-used lineup in the playoffs. That might be enough to convince Celtics coach Im Odoka that switching Williams for another is not the answer.
Given the offensive limitations of Golden State’s 6-foot-6 Draymond Green and the size of their wings, the Celtics don’t. You have To face Green and Kevin Looney with two big companies. Boston is a plus 11 with Derek White’s halves closed alongside Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Horford in the series. This quintet is +11 points per 100 possessions in non-negligible minutes throughout the playoffs, and their only disappointing stretch together in the finals came when Udoka with Match 2 knocked them out all but the end of the fourth quarter.
Playing white and smart to start each half can set a defensive tone against Stephen Curry. The Warriors star is shooting 3 vs. 11 in over 15 minutes against either Smart or White through two games, according to NBA tracking data. This combination means more minutes for Payton Pritchard as the number one goalkeeper on the bench. The Celtics are plus-61 in his watershed minutes, and he helped swing the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Warriors. His size also isn’t quite as much of a defensive issue against the Golden State creators as it was when Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antikonmo were chasing him in the previous series.
Removing Robert Williams from the bench could also solve Theiss problem. Reserve position was a responsibility in the playoffs. He’s the only negative player in the Celtics post-season. They are plus-144 in 760 minutes with him off the bench and -41 in 200 minutes of playing time. Golden State won the first 13 minutes of the series against Theis by 15 points, ahead of the garbage-cleaning mission in Game 2.
Grant Williams’ performance in line with the expectations he set for himself earlier in the playoffs, when he played closed defense and shot 44% in five 3-point attempts per game during his first 14 appearances, could replace Boston’s bench ability Thes without exhausting Robert Williams. Grant Williams and Horford plus 74 were in 341 minutes of playoff together during the conference finals and were -7 in 16 minutes of the series.
The Celtics haven’t tried Grant Williams in the center for more than a few possessions at a time all season. If there’s a team he can work against, it’s Golden State’s junior ball squad. Odoka had a chance to test Grant Williams as the only great player to start the fourth quarter in Match 2, only to see if he had any passion against Jordan Paul, Gary Payton II, Clay Thompson, Nemanja Bellica and Green, but the coach is stuck with his top five players, The game got out of hand anyway. It might be worth a try in Game 3.
Eliminating Theiss and continuing to reduce suboptimal Robert Williams would mean big minutes for the Boston session. Odoka leaned hard on his better lineups late in the seven-game series against Milwaukee and Miami, and his use of Theiss so far against Golden State may signal his expectation that the Finals could be another long one. No one except Tatum has passed 40 minutes in two games, but the Celtics have to protect the home ground advantage they stole in the first game, and there’s no streak beyond this one.
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