By Yaron Weitzmann
FOX Sports Writer NBA
BOSTON — In the hours leading up to the whistleblower, as he jumped and ran across the hardwood floor at TD Garden, Robert WilliamsIII felt, well, not quite right, but better than he had felt in weeks. “A little looser”, is how he would later describe it.
He had been gifted for three days between Games 2 and 3 and had spent that respite tending to his recalcitrant left knee. Elongation. Icing. Stimulating. Take a nap – or rather, as a father of two young children, at least try.
“Sometimes I try to take a nap before the game and I hear little knocks on the door,” he said.
Williams first injured his knee in March, when a torn meniscus ruled him out of the last seven games of the regular season and the first two of the playoffs. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a bone bruise on the same knee. The injury grounded him for the last three games of the Boston Celtics‘conference semifinals battle with the Milwaukee dollars and match 3 against the miami heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Williams came back, but he looked like a shell of himself. The long, bouncy, rolling, protective force (he stands 6ft 9in but has a wingspan of 7ft 6in) that propelled the Celtics on their dominant run through the second half of the season was gone. He was slow. He was pinned to the ground. He was the only weak link in the Celtics’ stifling defense. The injury had rendered him unplayable.
But the Celtics — especially first-year coach Ime Udoka — have spent the season pushing Williams to become more comfortable playing through the pain. “If you can go, we’ll take 20% of you. Better than none of you,” Celtics guard Smart Marcus said he told Williams recently.
And at the Celtics 116-100 Game 3 win above Warriors Wednesday, Williams gave his team so much more than that. He was all over the floor – hitting a shot on one possession, deterring a jumper on another, smashing the boards, diving on the floor, punishing the Warriors for trying to play small.
“He decided to go over there and put his big boy pants on and suck it and go crazy,” Smart said afterwards.
Williams had eight points and 10 rebounds to go with four blocks and three steals as the Celtics edged the Warriors by a team-high 21 points in the 26 minutes he was on the floor.
“He is a game changer”, Celtics striker Al Horford said after the game. “Rob is truly a game changer. We’re very lucky to have a guy like that impacting the win the way he does because it’s beyond the numbers with him. It’s just every things he brings, being in the right places.”
Three games into this series, it’s becoming clear that Williams’ health and production could very well be the Celtics’ harbinger. When lit, they look unbeatable. This was the case in their Game 1 in San Francisco: he lost eight points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 24 minutes of action.
In Game 2, he was limited to two points, two rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes. The Celtics lost by 19.
Williams is integral to everything Boston does at both ends of the field. He was central to their rapid mid-season turnaround. Udoka’s decision to change his defensive scheme midway through the season and start putting Williams on the opposition’s weakest shooter, a move meant to free him to fly to the edge, was one of the reasons. why the Celtics finished the season with the best in the league. – Classified defense. His mere presence has the ability to scare away opposing scorers.
“We talked about where he is because especially depending on who he’s guarding, he can come out of nowhere,” the Warriors goaltender said. Stephen Curry said after Game 3. “There’s a game at the start of the fourth, I got by Grant Williams and I thought I had daylight to take a picture, and you underestimate how athletic he was and how messed up he could be in that picture.”
But Robert Williams has also become more than just a rim protector, at least when healthy and at his best. This was evident throughout Game 3. Just scan the box score. Look for areas where the Celtics have excelled and you will see its mark.
Get ahead of the Warriors 47-31? Check! Embark them on the offensive glass 15-6? Check! (Williams had three). Surpassing them in the paint 52-26? As you can see from the tweet below, check it out!
Or how about the 23-11 run in the fourth quarter, which came after the Warriors returned to the game with one of their signature third-quarter outbursts? This flurry was propelled by a barrage of bombs from Curry and Klay Thompson. So going into the fourth quarter, the Celtics adjusted their defense.
“We have to change a bit more,” Udoka said, “and that takes a lot out of Rob and Al and those guys. They’ve been doing it all year, but with Rob being a little shy and outgoing, you “I have to work a little harder to get out on Curry, with the range these guys have. For him, it worked out tonight.
The Warriors connected on just one of nine deep fourth-quarter looks.
The question now is whether Williams can continue like this. There’s only one day off until Game 4. And the minutes will keep piling up.
“Throw stuff at him, see how he reacts,” he said of his knee after Wednesday’s game. He had limped into the media conference room, as he has done for the past two weeks. A reporter asked what he learned about himself going through the pain.
“I just try to be responsible for my team,” he replied. “We’ve come this far. I’m happy with how it’s going. We’ll worry about the injury after the season, but for now I’m still fighting.”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of « Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the most daring process in the history of professional sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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