2022 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Celtics

Playing in pain, Robert Williams III still making an impact for Celtics

Lingering discomfort from March knee surgery hasn't stopped Boston's defensive anchor from being a major factor in limited minutes.

Robert Williams III has blocked 10 shots through three games in the Finals.

• Complete coverage: 2022 NBA Finals

BOSTON — The playoffs, we are told constantly, are all about adjustments.

For Boston center Robert Williams III, however, we’re talking something more like the adjustments made by chiropractors — oof! ouch! — than by coaches working overtime on the white board.

Williams’ left knee has become a major player unto itself through three games of the 2022 NBA Finals. When it’s sore — a lingering discomfort from surgery in late March to repair a torn meniscus, compounded by semi-regular usage — Williams will noticeably limp up and down the court and play with limited effectiveness, if at all.

When the knee is loose and causing the fourth-year big man from tiny Oil City, La., less severe discomfort, Williams can be decidedly disruptive as a defender while providing a potent alley-oop option to the Celtics’ offense. He was both of those things in Boston’s 116-100 victory in Game 3.

The Celtics' Robert Williams III is providing elite rim-protection so far in these Finals.

The Celtics’ injury reports have become as consistent in assessing without divulging Williams’ status for each upcoming game as days ending in “-y.” But when the knee cooperates, or Williams pushes through to make it so, good things for Boston tend to go from questionable to probable, too.

“Very multi-dimensional defender that has really good instincts,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said. “I would say the modern-day NBA center — a little undersized, can move his feet, guard on the perimeter, guard in the post and, obviously, rim protection is what he has always naturally done. A huge luxury for us.”

Williams made a spectacular play in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, closing the gap from the paint out to the left corner to block Miami guard Gabe Vincent’s 3-point attempt. He got Golden State’s Steph Curry in the Finals opener last week, venturing out to the arc in anticipation.

In the fourth quarter Wednesday, he swatted a floater by Curry that veered into goaltending territory, perhaps, but still had the Warriors flummoxed. He closed out on Klay Thompson’s 3-point attempt, then hustled/hobbled back for the rebound.

A couple of times, Williams even seemed to be in the heads of Golden State shooters, who thought twice and either passed the ball or relocated themselves to avoid his ability to block or alter their shots. Normally that’s the sort of preemptive intimidation associated with giants such as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert or prime Dikembe Mutombo. That Williams is getting similar respect playing on 1 1/2 legs speaks to his value and determination.

“Yeah, Robert changes everything,” teammate Al Horford said. “It’s great to see him being able to play and show some of the things that he can do, how he can impact the game.

“Just his presence, people in the league, everybody, we all know each other. He’s capable of blocking jump shots, people are coming in the lane, they have to think about it just because he’s around there. Even on the perimeter he’s doing a good job getting out there and contesting.

“I know he’s obviously playing through a lot of stuff, and I’m just very happy to see him succeed right now.”

Robert Williams III's best blocks in 2021-22.

On the other end of that happiness spectrum would be Curry and his fellow Warriors. It wasn’t just Williams’ defense or his eight points, 10 rebounds, three steals and four blocks in Game 3. It’s the fact that Golden State’s swirling, high-octane, deep-threat attack often can send opposing big men to the bench entirely. But Williams has managed to stay on the floor more than most, knee permitting.

“We’ve talked about just being aware of where he is,” Curry said, “because especially depending on who he’s guarding, he can kind of come out of nowhere. There’s a play early in the fourth, I got by Grant Williams and thought I had daylight to get a shot up, and you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could bother that shot.

“There are situations where we can use that to our advantage because he’s going to be aggressive. He’s going to keep trying to make plays on the ball. You have to be aware of where he is because that’s what he does for them on that end of the floor.”

Particularly in his current state, Williams still has much to learn. Deep into the third quarter, for instance, he gave Klay Thompson too much space on the right wing for a 3-point bucket, earning Udoka’s ire.

If you can go, we’ll take 20 percent of you better than none of you. He understood that, and he decided to go out there and put his big-boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy.”

— Celtics guard Marcus Smart, on Robert Williams III

But he has come a long way from the immature 27th pick out of Texas A&M in the 2018 draft, who earned his “Time Lord” nickname for bouts of tardiness or no-shows in his rookie year. Despite appearing in only 61 games this season, Williams was voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team.

“I think he’s always a high level, pretty instinctual guy,” Udoka said Thursday. “Some things that we’ve asked him to do have been different than he has had to do throughout his career. I think just off the top, the amount of switching and perimeter play, but he’s a guy that can do it.”

Udoka was on Philadelphia’s and Brooklyn’s benches the past two seasons and knew how careful both teams were to keep away from Williams.

“The rim protection stands out, but his ability to move his feet on the perimeter and the luxury of having him off the ball at times,” the coach said, allows the Celtics to occasionally pair Williams and Horford.

Of Boston’s first 14 playoff games this spring, Williams missed seven. He has participated in the past seven, however, logging at least 14 minutes each time. Guard Marcus Smart, known for his toughness in playing hurt, has talked with Williams about his predicament.

“I just told him, you know your body,” Smart shared. “If you can go, we’ll take 20 percent of you better than none of you. He understood that, and he decided to go out there and put his big-boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy.”

A specific concern in advance of Game 4 (9 ET, ABC) is that the time between games is the shortest of the series — just 48 hours. The Celtics’ regimen for keeping him available will be tested with the quicker turnaround. Williams offered a detailed glimpse into the treatment he endures daily.

“Start off usually like a deep tissue massage, back of my calf, front of my knee,” he said. “Calf stretch. Get some ice, maybe ice one or two times. Wait a couple hours. Really just repeat the same thing.”

The knee bothers him more moving laterally, he said, than running or jumping. He and the Celtics are being careful and remain confident no further damage will be done by playing on it. There are, after all, no more than four games left until a long R&R opportunity.

“I’ve been playing like this like two, three weeks. I’m used to it,” Williams said. “We’re in the Finals, man.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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