BOSTON – Celtics’ public address announcer Eddie Palladino began his starting lineup introduction in typical order Monday night, calling forth Derrick White and Al Horford, respectively, into the lone spotlight of a dimmed TD Garden.
Then, out over the PA system boomed a name that hadn’t been heard during pregame roll call in nearly seven months:
The fifth-year center took the court for the opening tip against the Chicago Bulls for the first time since Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals, and all felt right in Celtics Nation again.
“It felt like we were getting back to normal,” Jayson Tatum later reflected.
It didn’t take long for things to feel back to normal, as Williams threw down an alley-oop jam off a dish from Al Horford for Boston’s first points of the game. He would score four more points after that to go along with seven rebounds, two assists, and two blocked shots in a season-high 22 minutes and 56 seconds of action, all while holding it down on the defensive end in a 107-99 win over the Bulls.
“He was great,” Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Williams’ contributions. “I think he brought a level of joy to our team, just because of how unselfish he is and the type of plays he’s able to make on both ends of the floor. I thought our spacing was better with our big lineup. That’s just something we’re going to continue to work on.”
Williams has been working on reacclimating himself to the rotation after missing the first 29 games of the regular season, recovering from offseason knee surgery. He returned to action on Dec. 16 against Orlando and has now made 10 appearances.
His long, physical presence had been missed against bigger teams such as the Bulls, who beat Boston twice in the first month of the season. Although the C's also experienced success without Williams, there's no question that they're even better with him.
“When he was out, we were able to form an identity of just playing a certain way,” said Mazzulla. “And I think having him allows us to do that even more once we get acclimated with him, but it also just gives us a different attack that we can have.”
Grant Williams elaborated on how Rob’s presence is strengthening the team’s offensive attack, as well as fortifying its efforts on the defensive end.
“He does so many tremendous things that not many people in the league can even do,” said Grant, who tied his regular-season career high of 20 points Monday night. “He does a phenomenal job of not only protecting us on the defensive end, but he’s doing a great job pressuring on the offensive glass, being a threat down there – a lob threat. And like JT and [Jaylen Brown] have both said in previous days, we get to continue to include him, we get to continue to work him back into the offense, get familiar with him, understand that there may be opportunities to not only throw lobs, but also dropping off to him to allow him to make a play.”
Grant added that Rob’s impact goes beyond his play, noting how much of a leader he is both on the court and in the locker room.
“Rob's presence is contagious,” he said. “Just him being on the floor, the energy, the life, the smiles, the character of the person that he is is contagious. Not only just the floor, but the room that he walks into. We're fortunate enough to have a teammate like him because even when you're not necessarily playing your best or even when you're in your own head, he does a phenomenal job of going up to you and telling you you're doing a good job and you're doing whatever you need to be doing and keep your head up. He's a phenomenal person, so I'm thankful for Rob.”
And the C’s were thankful to have him back with the first unit Monday night. Especially his No. 1 fan, Tatum.
“It felt like he was in a great rhythm,” said JT, who scored a game-high 32 points to go along with eight rebounds and seven assists. “He made some big-time hustle plays. He just gives us that lob threat, that rim protection, and obviously how well he can pass the ball. So, extremely happy to have him back.”