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Robert Williams’s Injury Puts the Celtics’ Sleeper Hopes to Bed

Boston’s been the hottest team in the NBA for weeks, but losing its starting center indefinitely isn’t something it can weather

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Celtics center Robert Williams III tore the meniscus in his left knee just hours before Will Smith smacked Chris Rock on live television during the Oscars. While everyone is consumed with the ripple effects of the slap heard around the world, all I’ve been able to think about since Sunday night is whether the Celtics can thrive without Williams.

I’ve said for months on The Mismatch that the Celtics are NBA Finals sleepers, and as the season has progressed it’s become more obvious that they are major threats. Though Williams isn’t a household name yet, he had a chance to be a central figure for Boston, which would need him to get through Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in order to reach the Finals. Now that he’s reportedly sidelined indefinitely, Boston’s odds of a deep run have taken their own smack across the face.

In 2022, the Celtics own the NBA’s top-ranked defensive rating by far, in part because Coach of the Year candidate Ime Udoka moved Williams away from the source of actions, such as handoffs and pick-and-rolls. Instead, he has tasked him with defending corner 3-point shooters or a player hovering around the baseline. Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Daniel Theis are the bigs who usually defend the opposing center or a player involved with screening. The point is to keep Williams near the paint, where he can stay positioned as a weak-side helper who can bolt at the last second and alter shots.

Williams possesses excellent hand-eye coordination to block or poke at the ball using either hand. And with quick-twitch acceleration, he’s able to close gaps in a blink. This season, 139 players have been the closest defender on at least 600 shots, and Williams forces opponents to shoot only 35.5 percent, the best mark in the league, according to Second Spectrum. That mark trails only Matisse Thybulle in 2020-21 (when he made the All-Defensive Team) and Giannis in 2019-20 (when he won Defensive Player of the Year) dating back to 2019. Williams is still an outside candidate to win the DPOY hardware in 2022, and he’s a lock for one of 10 spots on my All-Defensive Team ballot. The Celtics won’t be the same without him.

“We’ll know in the next few days, just evaluate some surgical options, look at those over the next few days and we’ll know more then,” Udoka told reporters before the Celtics lost to the Raptors on Monday. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported there are two options for Williams: a procedure that’d knock him out until next season or a four-to-six-week recovery that could bring him back sometime after the first round of the playoffs.

But Boston could face a stiff challenge like Brooklyn in the first round, and there’s no guarantee Williams would be 100 percent even if he can return in the second.

After a 23-24 start, the Celtics miraculously turned their season around and emerged as a contender. Does Williams’s absence mean their hopes of making a Finals run are shot? To be blunt, yes. The Celtics need him. He’s that important. Williams would’ve been the guy there to help on downhill attacks by Giannis, or defend him man-to-man. He can switch onto a guard like Kyle Lowry or Kyrie Irving. And when he’s the lone big on the floor, he’s an intimidating rim protector no matter the defensive coverage.

This season, the Celtics are allowing only 0.86 points per pick-and-roll that Williams defends, which is the best in the NBA, according to Second Spectrum.

More often than not, the Celtics have Williams switch. Boston has switched the most screens in the league and also allows the second-fewest points per chance on them, behind only the Suns. A switch takes an opponent out of its offense and influences them to isolate.

Here’s an example of how that often looks:

Following an offensive rebound by Utah, the Celtics are scattered on defense. Williams is on Royce O’Neale, and eventually finds himself on Jordan Clarkson after a series of switches. This is the matchup the Jazz want—but Williams doesn’t allow penetration. Clarkson finds Donovan Mitchell, who throws a little pump fake to get a step on Marcus Smart. Often, a slight edge is all an All-Star needs to score, but Smart has the reach to get a hand on the ball and Williams is able to rapidly rotate over to block the shot, sending the Celtics back the other way on offense.

This season, Williams and Smart ranked first in the league as a duo when switching a pick-and-roll, allowing only 0.49 points per chance. That’s because Smart is big, strong, and gritty enough to contain the bigger players, and Williams is long and shifty enough to contain guards on the perimeter.

Losing Williams means more responsibility will fall on Horford and Grant Williams to switch screens or help in the paint. Theis will likely also play more minutes. Thus far, they have played well. “Daniel’s a guy who is versatile, can do a lot of the same things [as Williams and Horford]. Different player obviously, but we’ll rely upon him. Obviously got the option to downsize and then Grant doing what he’s doing,” Udoka told reporters on Monday. “Other guys will step up and have to carry the load.”

The demands will become heavier and the opponents will get more difficult in the weeks to come, but you can’t rule out the Celtics winning a round because as elite as their defense has been, they’ll still be good without Williams. Time Lord is part of the operation but he’s not the center of the solar system in the way that Rudy Gobert is for Utah. Unlike the Jazz, the Celtics are stacked with quality defenders who also happen to be major contributors on offense. Boston’s offensive rating ranks fifth in 2022. All-NBA lock Jayson Tatum will need to absorb more responsibility on defense while sustaining his shot-creating load. Offensive numbers are juiced right now around the league, but Tatum is averaging 29.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and five assists per game since he broke out in January.

Jaylen Brown can explode by his side on offense, and he’s also a good defender. The questions about their fit have been silenced this season. Either of them can handle the ball and defend the opponent’s best players. When a team has two All-Stars setting a defensive tone, plus enforcers like Smart and Derrick White, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Smart is back to his All-Defensive, havoc-wreaking ways, but he’s also thinking pass first on offense and displaying the best shot selection of his career. Together, Smart and Williams also teamed up to form one of the NBA’s most potent pick-and-roll combinations. Of the 100 most frequently used combos, Smart-Williams is the third most efficient, logging 1.1 points scored per pick-and-roll.

Williams was a key figure on offense with his lob threat ability both in transition and on cuts and rolls into the paint. He can rapidly process info and read plays, and he’s become a key passer within the offense. Without him, Horford, Grant Williams, and Theis will be setting more screens and serving as pick-and-pop threats rather than rolling and looking for the ball at the rim.

Playoff seeding has yet to be determined. As of now, the Celtics are slotted as the 4-seed with a first-round matchup against the Bulls. But they’re also tied for the 2-seed and only one game back of the top spot, which could potentially mean a first-round date against Brooklyn. Boston should be able to win a first-round matchup against Atlanta, Charlotte, or Cleveland without Williams. Brooklyn would be a different type of challenge, though, with full-time Kyrie Irving joining Kevin Durant and the potential of Ben Simmons’s return. Williams has played an important role in games against Brooklyn this season, even on offense.

A dead-end possession can be saved by an athletic interior force like Williams, who feasted for stretches against the Nets this season by attentively cutting to the rim for lobs and offensive boards.

Even if the Celtics do get past the first round, regardless of the opponent, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Miami, or even Brooklyn could be waiting for them. At some point, the Celtics would be overwhelmed unless Williams can return, but they should take some solace in making tremendous long-term strides this season.

Danny Ainge set up Brad Stevens for success with his acquisitions in recent years, and Stevens hired the right head coach in Udoka, who steered this team through a rocky start and earned the respect of his locker room. He coached them into ball-sharing habits on offense and installed a versatile defensive scheme.

Meanwhile, Stevens pivoted from and corrected some of his other decisions. In his first offseason as general manager, the Celtics traded for Horford and Josh Richardson, and signed Enes Kanter Freedom and Dennis Schröder. Only Horford is still on the team. Ainge’s recent draft picks (including both Williams and Payton Pritchard) were beginning to blossom and deserved more playing time. So Stevens turned Richardson into White, a contagious playmaker who plays excellent defense. And Freedom and Schröder brought back an ex-Celtic in Theis, a steady defender who can shoot 3s. Stevens could’ve been stubborn and kept what he first added but instead adapted to nail a contending roster at the trade deadline.

“This year doesn’t have to be a record-setting year,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck told Stevens and Udoka before the season, he recalled last week on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show. “What I want to do is win a ring, another one when we’re in the prime over the next five years. We’ve got the makings here with Jaylen and Jayson. Don’t do anything this year for a quick Band-Aid that’s going to mess up the next four years. This feels like we’re going to build into this thing.”

Boston is young. All of its core players outside of Horford are in their 20s. Over the past five years, Boston has been to three East finals, lost in the second round, and lost in the first round. This team is grizzled with experience and all it’s done is improve.

Williams should play if he’s able to, but he has a history of knee issues. The Celtics were cautious about his workload in the past before he began to flourish this season. Last summer, he signed a four-year, $54 million extension that kicks in next season. It could become one of the best bargains in the league in the coming years. Boston will want to assure its starting center is healthy for the duration of the deal, especially with Celtics brass believing they have a long title window ahead.

Though the Celtics could have made a championship run this season at full strength, their peak years with this core won’t come for another year or two as their young players all make individual and collective progress. The Williams injury is a downer, but Boston’s years of contention are only beginning.