By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
BOSTON — In the hours leading up to tipoff, as he jumped and jogged across the hardwood floor of TD Garden, Robert Williams III felt, well, not quite good, but better than he’d felt in weeks. “A little more loose” is how he would describe it later.
He’d been gifted three days between Games 2 and 3 and spent that respite nursing his balky left knee. Stretching. Icing. Stimulating. Napping — or, rather, as a father of two young kids, at least attempting.
“Sometimes I try to get pregame naps in, and I hear little knocks on the door,” he said.
Williams first hurt the knee back in March, when a meniscus tear sidelined him for the final seven games of the regular season and first two of the playoffs. Not long after that, he was diagnosed with a bone bruise in the same knee. The injury grounded him for the final three games of the Boston Celtics’ conference semifinals battle with the Milwaukee Bucks and Game 3 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Williams returned, but he looked like a shell of himself. The rangy, bouncy, rim-running and protecting force (he stands 6-feet-9 inches but has a 7-foot-6 wingspan) that propelled the Celtics during their dominant run through the second half of the season was gone. He was slow. He was ground-bound. He was the lone weak link in the Celtics’ suffocating defense. The injury had rendered him unplayable.
But the Celtics — specifically, first-year coach Ime Udoka — spent the season pushing Williams to become more comfortable playing through pain. “If you can go, we’ll take 20 percent of you. Better than none of you,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he told Williams recently.
And in the Celtics’ 116-100 Game 3 victory over the Warriors on Wednesday, Williams gave his squad much more than that. He was everywhere on the floor — swatting a shot one possession, deterring a jumper on another, crashing the boards, diving on the floor, punishing the Warriors for trying to play small.
“He decided to go out there and put his big boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy,” Smart said afterward.
Williams racked up eight points and 10 rebounds to go with four blocks and three steals as the Celtics outscored the Warriors by a team-best 21 points in the 26 minutes he was on the floor.
“He’s a game-changer,” Celtics forward Al Horford said after the game. “Rob is really a game-changer. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that that impacts winning in the way that he does because it’s beyond the numbers with him. It’s just all the things that he brings, being in the right places.”
Three games into this series, it’s becoming clear that Williams’ health and production could very well be the bellwether for the Celtics. When he’s on, they look unbeatable. That was the case in their Game 1 blowout in San Francisco: He dropped eight points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 24 minutes of action.
In Game 2, he was limited to two points, two rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes. The Celtics lost by 19.
Williams is integral to everything Boston does on both ends of the floor. He was at the heart of their rapid midseason turnaround. Udoka’s decision to tweak his defensive scheme in the middle of the season and begin slotting Williams onto the opponent’s weakest shooter, a move meant to free him up to fly to the rim, was one of the reasons the Celtics finished the season with the league’s top-ranked defense. His mere presence has the ability to spook opposing scorers.
“We’ve talked about just being aware of where he is because, especially depending on who he’s guarding, he can kind of come out of nowhere,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said after Game 3. “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.”
But Robert Williams has also become more than just a rim protector, at least when he’s healthy and at his best. That was evident throughout Game 3. Just scan the box score. Look for the areas where the Celtics excelled, and you’ll see his imprint.
Out-rebounding the Warriors 47-31? Check! Out-boarding them on the offensive glass 15-6? Check! (Williams had three). Outscoring them in the paint 52-26? As you can see from the tweet below, check!
Or how about the 23-11 fourth-quarter run, which came after the Warriors got back into the game with one of their signature third-quarter explosions? That burst was propelled by a barrage of bombs from Curry and Klay Thompson. So entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics adjusted their defense.
“We got to switching a little bit more,” Udoka said, “and that’s asking a lot of Rob and Al and those guys. They’ve done it all year, but with Rob being a little hampered and getting out there, you’ve got to work a little bit harder to get out on Curry, with the range those guys have. For him, it worked tonight.”
The Warriors connected on just one of nine fourth-quarter looks from deep.
The question now is whether Williams can keep this up. There’s just one day off before Game 4. And the minutes are going to keep adding up.
“Throw some stuff at it, see how it reacts,” he said of his knee after the game Wednesday. He’d entered the media conference room limping, just as he has the past couple of weeks. One reporter asked what he has learned about himself by pushing through the pain.
“Just trying to be accountable for my team,” he replied. “We made it this far. I’m happy with how it’s going. We’ll worry about the injury after the season, but for now, I’m still fighting.”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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