Robert Williams III of the Boston Celtics is less than ten weeks from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he sustained a bone bruise in the same knee, and in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when Marcus Smart collided with same knee during the third quarter, he crumpled on the court.
The 24-year-old All-Defensive center is giving everything he has, and it may be too much.
The Golden State Warriors are destroying both of Boston’s starting lineups. Through two games of the series, the Celtics have been outscored by 33 points in 64 minutes when two of Williams, Al Horford, Daniel Theis, or Grant Williams are on the floor. In the final 32 minutes, they defeated the Warriors by a score of 26.
During the regular season, Robert Williams and Al Horford were a formidable combo. They won per 100 possessions by an average of 24.6 points with Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup, and concluded the regular season with a 27-7 record when playing together. Williams is 4-4 in the postseason and is outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions.
It’s been even worse when it comes to Golden State. At the start of the first and third quarters, the Warriors had buried the Celtics by a combined 18 points against the Williams-Horford duo. Only a brilliant contested shot making performance to start Game 2 prevented a greater deficit. Given that both games’ halftime margins were two points, Boston has been fighting its way out of holes it dug at the beginning of each half.
All of this will be resolved if Robert Williams miraculously recovers his health. Aside from that, it’s still a problem.
For the remaining four games of their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics started Grant Williams in place of Robert Williams, winning three of them by a combined 49 points. Grant Williams is minus-28 in 152 minutes with the four other starters in Boston’s most-used lineup in the playoffs. That may be enough to persuade Celtics head coach Ime Udoka that switching Williams is not the answer.
The Celtics do not need to defend Draymond Green and Kevon Looney with two bigs because of Green’s offensive limitations and the size of their wings. With Derrick White finishing halves alongside Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Horford, Boston is plus-11 in the series. Throughout the playoffs, that quintet has averaged plus-11 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes, and their lone dismal run together in the Finals came when Udoka benched them with Game 2 already decided at the opening of the fourth quarter.
Starting each half with White and Smart might create a defensive tone against Stephen Curry. According to the NBA’s monitoring stats, the Warriors superstar is 3 for 11 in more than 15 minutes when matched up either against Smart or White through two games. As the first guard off the bench, Payton Pritchard would get more minutes with this combo. In his playoff minutes, he has a plus-61 rating for the Celtics, and he helped the Celtics win Game 1 against the Warriors in the fourth quarter. His size is also less of a concern defensively against Golden State’s creators than it was against Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo in previous matchups.
Theis’ situation might also be solved by bringing Robert Williams off the bench. In the playoffs, the backup center has become a liability. In the postseason, he is the Celtics’ lone net-negative rotational player. With him on the bench, they are plus-144 in 760 minutes and minus-41 in his 200 minutes on the field. Before his garbage cleanup job in Game 2, Golden State won the first 13 minutes of this series against Theis by 15 points.
If Grant Williams lives up to the standards he set for himself initially in the playoffs, when he played lockdown defense and shot 44 percent on five 3-point tries per game in his first 14 games, Boston’s ability to bench Theis without overtaxing Robert Williams could be solved. Through the conference finals, Grant Williams and Horford were a plus-74 in 341 playoff minutes together, but they are minus-7 in 16 minutes this series.
All season, the Celtics have only attempted Grant Williams at center for a few possessions at a time. Golden State’s small-ball lineups are the only team it could possibly work against. At the start of the fourth quarter in Game 2, Udoka had a chance to put Grant Williams in as the lone big to see if he could hold his own against Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, Klayton Thompson, Nemanja Bjelica, and Green, but the coach stuck with his top 5 players, and the match got out of control anyway. In Game 3, it might be worth a chance.
Eliminating Theis and limiting a subpar Robert Williams will result in significant minutes for Boston’s rotation. Late in seven-game series vs Milwaukee and Miami, Udoka leaned more heavily on his better lineups, and his reliance of Theis so far against Golden State could reflect his belief that the Finals will be another long one. Except for Tatum, no one has played more than 40 minutes in the first two games, but the Celtics must defend the home-court advantage they gained in Game 1, and there is no series after this one.