But he has been battling a knee injury throughout the Celtics’ marvellous postseason run, which sees them now just one home victory in Game 4 – live & Main Event from 1.45am overnight – from giving themselves three shots at winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Whatever they choose to do, it’s fair to say that 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.
The Celtics’ injury reports have been consistent in assessing his condition as ‘questionable’ 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.
When the knee is loose and causing the Louisiana native less severe discomfort, Williams can be decidedly disruptive as a defender, providing elite rim protection while offering a potent alley-oop option to the Celtics’ offense. He was both of those things in Game 3.
The fourth-year big man has been a revelation for the Celtics this season, excelling defensively in Boston’s 116-100 Game 3 triumph with four blocks, three steals, and a team-high plus-21 on the floor.
The short gap between the third and fourth games of the series presents the Celtics with a decision to make, as neither team nor player will want to risk worsening the pain or damage and seeing him ruled out for the remainder. Do they play Williams? Let him sit? Operate on a minutes restriction? There are options to consider…
With just a 48-hour turnaround this time, the Celtics’ regimen for keeping him available will be severely tested. Williams gave NBA.com 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.”
In the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game, he swatted a floater by Stephen 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 one-and-a-half legs speaks to his value and determination.
“Yeah, Robert changes everything,” team-mate 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.
“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.”
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. “I know he’s obviously playing through a lot of stuff, and I’m just very happy to see him succeed right now.”