BOSTON — The Boston Celtics must do whatever it takes to preserve the health of Robert Williams’ left knee for the duration of the 2021-22 season. Their title hopes might depend on it.
Boston’s defense with Williams on the court simply has a different dynamic, a different energy. Even with Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart sidelined by an ankle injury, Boston’s four remaining starters — along with Derrick White — ratcheted up their intensity while limiting the Miami Heat to just a single point over the first 8:38 of Monday’s Game 4 en route to a breezy 102-82 win that evened this Eastern Conference finals series at two games apiece.
Forty-eight hours after Bam Adebayo tormented the Celtics, Williams and frontcourt partner Al Horford walled off the paint. Any time a Miami player had designs on a layup, Williams raced over to make them think twice about going up. The Heat missed a bunch of bunnies that seemed to fall throughout Game 3.
The Heat posted an impossibly low offensive rating of 65.7 in all halfcourt sets during Game 4. That’s one of the lowest outputs of the entire NBA season (per Cleaning the Glass data it ranked in the 1st percentile for the 2021-22 season). Miami’s starters combined for a mere 18 points on 7-of-36 shooting (19.4 percent).
While all of Boston’s defenders went up a level, it’s hard not to notice the difference with Williams on the floor. The All-Defense second-teamer uses his long arms and athleticism to contest shots all over the floor. When slotted in the free-safety role, Miami has to work that much harder for quality shots.
It almost feels like a moment when someone like Kyle Lowry is able to send a rainbow high enough to make a jumper over Williams. More often he’s able to complicate matters or block the shot, which left ESPN’s announcing crew gushing about his “unicorn” like ways during Game 4.
In Time Lord’s eight playoff appearances this season, the Celtics own a team-best defensive rating of 97.7, or 8.3 points per 100 possessions better than their postseason average.
On Monday night, Heat players were a mere 6-of-26 shooting when defended by Horford or Williams. Horford bounced back from a rough night against Adebayo in Game 3 to add four blocks and 13 rebounds as part of a dominant defensive performance.
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In this series and, really, for all of their postseason run, the Celtics’ formula for victory has been really simple: Value the basketball, do enough on offense to get near 100 points, and let the defensive carry the team to victory.
Neither the Bucks nor the Heat were able to score on Boston’s set defense with any regularity. Miami’s two offensive outbursts were driven almost exclusively by Boston turnovers and lackadaisical effort in transition defense. When the Celtics are locked in like they were on Monday night, opponents really struggle to keep pace unless Jayson Tatum is having an offensive clunker or Boston takes its foot off the defensive accelerator.
But that rarely happens when Williams is on the floor.
Keeping him healthy is vital to Boston’s defensive consistency. The best stat from Monday’s game might have been Williams playing only 18 minutes, 38 seconds and getting to rest for most of the second half.
Williams missed four weeks and the start of the postseason after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus. He suffered a bone bruise on the same knee in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks and has missed five of Boston’s last eight playoff matchups.
But he’s been on the court for both of the Celtics’ wins over the Heat and sounded bullish on his chances of being out there for Game 5 in Miami.
“It’s just swelling a little bit, stiffening up on me a little,” Williams said of the knee. “Taking it day by day, spending a lot of time with the trainers, obviously, throwing a lot of scenarios at it, see how it responds.
“We usually just wait until the next day to see if it’s swelling or anything. Like I said, though, coming out of this game, no doubts in my head. I feel good for it.”
It sometimes feels like Williams’ defensive energy is contagious. You can hear him barking out instructions, a boost for a team when operating without Smart.
All of Boston’s defenders went up a level when paired with Williams. Not only did Horford bounce back after a poor showing but Tatum didn’t allow his matchups a single point on 0-for-9 shooting (somewhere, Pat Beverley would walk back his comments about Tatum’s 2-way prowess, if Beverly had any self awareness). Jaylen Brown limited his matchups to 1-of-6 shooting.
Overall, Boston’s starters allowed a mere 25 points on 9-of-53 shooting (17 percent) in Game 4.
They need to keep that defensive intensity up to win this series against Miami. And that task gets a lot easier if they can keep Williams on the floor.
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