Why Robert Williams’ health is so important to Celtics’ NBA title chances

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics must do everything they can to protect the health of Robert Williams’ left knee during the 2021-22 season. Their title hopes may depend on that.

Boston and Williams have different defensive dynamics on the floor, different energies. Even with Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart sidelined with an ankle injury, Boston’s remaining four starters — along with Derrick White — limited the Miami Heat to the first 8:38 of Monday’s game. One point while increasing their strength. 4 won an easy 102-82 en route to tie the Eastern Conference finals series by two games.

Williams and frontcourt partner Al Horford sealed off the penalty area after Bam Adebayo tormented the Celtics for 48 hours. Whenever a Miami player designed a layup, Williams would run over to make them think twice. The Heat missed a bunch of bunnies that seemed to fall in Game 3.

In Game 4, the Heat had a ridiculously low offensive rating of 65.7 in all halves. That’s one of the lowest outputs of the entire NBA season (it ranks in the 1st percentile for the 2021-22 season, according to Cleaning the Glass). Miami’s starters combined for just 18 points on 7-for-36 shooting (19.4 percent).

While all of Boston’s defenders have stepped up a level, it’s hard not to notice the difference on the floor for Williams. The All-Defensive Second Team player used his long arms and athleticism to shoot all over the game. Miami has to work harder to get quality shots when it comes to the free safety role.

It almost feels like someone like Kyle Lowry can send a rainbow high enough to shoot Williams. More often, he was able to complicate things or block shots, which had ESPN’s announcement staff gushing about his “unicorn” ways in Game 4.

Celtics talk: Is Robert Williams the key to Celtics beating the Heat?Plus more ideas for Game 4 | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Through the Time Lords’ eight playoff appearances this season, the Celtics have a team-best defensive rating of 97.7, which is 8.3 points per 100 possessions above the playoff average.

Heat players shot just 6-for-26 on Monday night when either Horford or Williams were defending. In Game 3, Horford recovered from a tough night against Adebayo, adding four blocks and 13 rebounds as part of a defensive performance.

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In this series, in fact, in all of their playoffs, the Celtics’ winning formula is pretty simple: focus on basketball, do well enough on offense, get close to 100 points, let defense lead the ball Team to victory.

Neither the Bucks nor the Heat can score regularly on Boston’s defense. Miami’s two offensive bursts were caused almost entirely by Boston’s turnovers and lack of effort in transition defenses. When the Celtics are locked up like Monday night, it’s really hard for opponents to keep up unless Jayson Tatum has an offensive clunker or Boston takes his foot off the defensive accelerator.

But that rarely happens when Williams is on the court.

Keeping him healthy is critical to Boston’s defensive stability. Probably the best stat of Monday’s game was that Williams played just 18:38 and was rested for most of the second half.

Williams missed four weeks and the start of the playoffs after undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus. He suffered a bone bruise on the same knee in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks and has missed five of Boston’s past eight playoff matchups.

The Boston Celtics must do everything they can to preserve the health of Robert Williams’ left knee during the 2021-22 season. Their title hopes may depend on that.

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But he was on the court in both of the Celtics’ win over the Heat and was optimistic about his chances of a Game 5 in Miami.

“It’s just a little bit swollen and makes me a little stiff,” Williams said of the knee. “Day in and day out, spending a lot of time with the trainers, obviously throwing a lot of scenes at it to see how it reacts.

“We usually just wait until the next day to see if it’s swollen or something. But, like I said, coming out of this game, there’s no doubt in my mind. I feel good about it.”

It sometimes feels like Williams’ defensive energy is contagious. You can hear him out loud, powering the team without Smart.

All of Boston’s guards are up a level when paired with Williams. Not only did Horford bounce back after a poor performance, but Tatum was 0-for-9 to not allow his matchup to score (somewhere, if Beverley had any ego, Pat Beverley would take back him against Tatum Awareness of the two-way capability review). Jaylen Brown limited his game to 1-for-6.

Overall, Boston’s starters scored just 25 points on 9-for-53 shooting (17 percent) in Game 4.

They need to maintain that defensive intensity to win the series against Miami. If they could keep Williams on the floor, that task would be a lot easier.

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