Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III is less than 10 weeks removed from surgery on 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 he buckled to the court in Game 2 of the NBA Finals when Marcus Smart collided with that knee during the third quarter.
The 24-year-old All-Defensive big man is giving all he has left, and it might be too much.
The Golden State Warriors are crushing Boston's two-big lineups. With two of either Williams, Al Horford, Daniel Theis or Grant Williams on the floor, the Celtics have been outscored by 33 points over 64 minutes through two games of the series. They have 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 every 100 possessions by an average of 24.6 points and finished the regular season with a 27-7 record when taking the court together. With Williams hobbled in the playoffs, they are 4-4 and getting outscored by 13.9 points per 100 possessions.
It has been worse against Golden State. The Warriors have buried the Celtics by a combined 18 points against the Williams-Horford tandem at the start of the first and third quarters. Only a blistering contested shotmaking display to start Game 2 kept that deficit from being larger. Considering the halftime margin for both games has been two points, Boston has been digging out of holes it dug at the start of each half.
All of this is solved if Robert Williams somehow gets healthy overnight. Otherwise, it remains a problem.
The Celtics started Grant Williams in place of Robert Williams for the final four games of their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, winning three of them by a combined 49 points. With the four other starters, Grant Williams is minus-28 in 152 minutes — Boston's most-used lineup in the playoffs. That may be enough to convince Celtics head coach Ime Udoka that swapping one Williams for another is not the solution.
Given the offensive limitations of Golden State's 6-foot-6 Draymond Green and the size of their wings, the Celtics do not have to counter Green and Kevon Looney with two bigs. Boston is plus-11 with Derrick White closing halves alongside Smart, Brown, Tatum and Horford in the series. That quintet is plus-11 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes throughout the playoffs, and their only disappointing stretch together in the Finals came when Udoka threw them out with Game 2 all but over at the start of the fourth quarter.
Playing White and Smart to start each half could set a defensive tone opposite Stephen Curry. The Warriors superstar is shooting 3 for 11 in more than 15 minutes matched up against either Smart or White through two games, per the NBA's tracking data. That combination would mean more minutes for Payton Pritchard as the first guard off the bench. The Celtics are plus-61 in his playoff minutes, and he helped swing the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Warriors. His size is also not as much of a defensive issue against Golden State's creators as it was when Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo were hunting him in prior series.
Bringing Robert Williams off the bench could also solve the Theis problem. The reserve center has been a liability in the playoffs. He is the Celtics' only net-negative rotational player in the postseason. They are plus-144 in 760 minutes with him on the bench and minus-41 in his 200 minutes of playing time. Golden State won its first 13 minutes of this series against Theis by 15 points, before his garbage cleanup duty in Game 2.
Grant Williams performing to the expectations he set for himself earlier in the playoffs, when he played lockdown defense and shot 44% on five 3-point attempts per game through his first 14 appearances, could solve Boston's ability to bench Theis without overtaxing Robert Williams. Grant Williams and Horford were plus-74 in 341 playoff minutes together through the conference finals and are minus-7 in 16 minutes of this series.
The Celtics have not tried Grant Williams at center for more than a few possessions at a time all season. If ever there were a team it might work against, it is Golden State's small-ball lineups. Udoka had a chance to test Grant Williams as the lone big at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 2, just to see if it had any juice against Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, Klay Thompson, Nemanja Bjelica and Green, but the coach stuck with his best five players, and the game got out of hand anyway. It might be worth a shot in Game 3.
Eliminating Theis and continuing to limit a suboptimal Robert Williams will mean big minutes for Boston's rotation. Udoka leaned heavier into his better lineups late in seven-game series against Milwaukee and Miami, and his use of Theis so far against Golden State could signal his expectation that the Finals could be another long one. Nobody except Tatum has exceeded 40 minutes through two games, but the Celtics must protect the home-court advantage they stole in Game 1, and there is no series beyond this one.
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