Through Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
BOSTON — In the hours leading up to the tip, as he jumped and jogged across the hardwood floor of TD Garden, Robert Williams III felt, well, not quite well, but better than she had in weeks. “A little looser,” he would describe it later.
He had been given a gift of three days between Games 2 and 3 and spent that break nursing his bulky left knee. Strain. Glaze. Stimulating. Take a nap – or rather, as a father of two small children, at least try to.
“Sometimes I’m trying to take a nap before the game and I hear little knocking noises on the door,” he said.
Williams first injured his knee in March when a torn meniscus sidelined him for the last seven games of the regular season and the first two of the playoffs. Not long after, he was diagnosed with a bone contusion in the same knee. The injury floored him for the final three games of the Boston Celtics’ conference semifinals bout against 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 slender, springy, rim-running and protective force (he’s 6ft 9in tall but has a 7ft 6 wingspan) the Celtics supported during their dominant run through the second half of the season was gone. He was slow. He was ground bound. He was the only weak link in the Celtics’ stifling defense. The injury made him unplayable.
But the Celtics — particularly first-year coach Ime Udoka — spent the season trying to get Williams to be more comfortable playing with pain. “If you can go, we’ll take 20 percent from you. Better than none of you,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart recently told Williams.
And in the Celtics’ 116-100 win in Game 3 over the Warriors on Wednesday, Williams gave his squad much more than that. He was all over the floor – hitting a shot on a possession, deterring a jumper on another, smashing the Boards, dove to the ground and punished the warriors for trying to make themselves small.
“He decided to go out there and put on his big boy pants and suck them up and go crazy,” Smart said afterwards.
Williams accumulated eight points and ten rebounds, four blocks and three steals as the Celtics outscored the Warriors with a team-best 21 points in the 26 minutes he was on the ground.
“He’s a game changer,” said Celtics forward Al Horford after the game. “Rob is really a game changer. We are very fortunate to have a guy like this who influences winning the way he does because it goes beyond the numbers with him. It’s just all the things that he brings with him to be right.”
Three games into that series, it’s becoming clear that Williams’ health and performance could very well be the guiding star for the Celtics. When it’s on, they look unbeatable. Such was the case with her blowout in Game 1 in San Francisco: He dropped eight points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots in 24 minutes.
In Game 2, he was limited to two points, two rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes. The Celtics lost by 19.
Williams is an integral part of everything Boston does at both ends of the parquet. He was the heart of their quick midseason turnaround. Udoka’s midseason decision to tweak his defensive system and put Williams on the opposition’s weakest shooter, a move that would free him to fly to the rim, was one of the reasons the Celtics spent the season at the top the league ended -rank defense. Its mere presence has the ability to startle opposing scorers.
“We 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. “It theres a game early in the fourth, i got past grant williams thinking i had daylight to take a shot and you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could disrupt that shot.
But Robert Williams has also become more than just a rim protector, at least when he is healthy and in top form. 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.
Warriors out rebounding 47-31? Check! Are they outboarding on the offensive glass 15-6? Check! (Williams had three). Outscoring them in the suit 52-26? As you can see from the tweet below, check!
Or how about that 23-11 fourth-quarter run that came after the Warriors got back in the game with one of their signature third-quarter explosions? This outburst was propelled by a barrage of bombs from Curry and Klay Thompson. Early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics adjusted their defense.
“We need to change a little more,” said Udoka, “and that’s taking a lot from Rob and Al and these guys. Got to work a little harder to get Curry out with the range these guys have. It worked for him tonight.
The Warriors connected with just one of nine looks from deep in the fourth quarter.
The question now is whether Williams can keep it up. There’s only one day off before Game 4. And the minutes will keep adding up.
“Throw some stuff at it and see how it reacts,” he said of his knee after Wednesday’s game. He’d walked into the media conference room limping, just like he had for the past few weeks. A reporter asked what he learned about himself by struggling through the pain.
“I’m just trying to be responsible for my team,” he replied. “We’ve made it this far. I’m happy with how things are going. We’ll be worried about the injury after the season, but right now I’m still struggling.”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of “Refueling to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History.”.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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