Robert Williams returned to the Celtics’ rotation on March 3 after being sidelined for 38 games because of a hip bone edema. The Celtics planned to gradually ramp up the backup center’s activity, but with the playoffs just over one month away, it was unclear whether he would have enough time to completely knock off the rust.
Then, after Williams played a total of about 45 minutes over four games, the NBA was shuttered due to COVID-19. It stalled the second year big man’s momentum a bit, but it also gave him four extra months to regain strength and some of the burst that makes him so dangerous.
“I actually feel like I got a little bit quicker, a little bit faster,” Williams said Sunday. “But being out those three and a half months, it gave my body time to heal. I got some good treatment, some good work in, and I’m ready to prove it on the court.”
This season, Williams is averaging 4.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14 minutes per game. His athletic, high-flying style is a nice complement to fellow backup Enes Kanter, who does more of his work below the rim as a rugged rebounder with defensive weak spots.
“He’s always been able to protect the rim at a high level, and I thought he was really improving early on in the season before he got hurt with a lot of pick-and-roll coverages,” coach Brad Stevens said of Williams. “When he came back, obviously there is going to be a little bit of a transition period, but now that we’re back and everyone is in a transition period, you can tell that . . . he looks like an older player now, finishing off his second year but basically entering his third.”
Last week Kanter gushed about the way Williams was soaring in recent practices. On Sunday, guard Marcus Smart echoed some of that sentiment. He said the game appears to have slowed down for Williams, and that he looks healthy and ready.
“I think our defense can go up another level,” Smart said. “We got somebody back there that can protect the rim. No offense to the other guys on our team, but Rob is a different type of freak of nature when it comes to athleticism, and the ability to go and change shots at the rim. So that allows us to pick up our pressure a little bit more as guards. And really, really, really just give the opposing team problems.”
A few months ago Stevens was on a walk with his wife Tracy and Celtics assistant coach Kara Lawson when Stevens asked Lawson about her future goals.
“And being the head coach at Duke was one of the things that came up,” Stevens said Sunday. “So it’s really cool that she’s getting a chance to do that. She’ll be terrific.”
Lawson on Saturday was officially named the head coach of the Duke women’s basketball team. She joined the Celtics last summer, becoming the first female assistant coach in the franchise’s history.
“Kara is always known for putting a smile on players’ faces,” Williams said. “She stays in your ear, even though she may not be your personal coach, she always keeps asking how I’m doing and if there’s anything I need to talk about, so I feel like Duke is going to get a great head coach. We’re going to miss her. We don’t want her to go, but it’s on to bigger and better opportunities.”
When Lawson was hired by Boston, Stevens allowed her to choose a player she wanted to work with individually. Smart said that he was her choice.
“We just built a bond from the moment she got here and paired with me and just really sitting down and talking, so it’s family,” Smart said. “I know I can speak for everyone on this team. We’re excited for her and proud of her and we love her.”
Sending a message
When the season resumes later this month, players will have the option of replacing their last name on the back of their jersey with a statement related to social justice. The NBA approved a list of statements, and Smart said that his jersey will say “Freedom” on the back.
He said he would prefer to put “I Matter” on his jersey, but that was not among the choices that was approved by the league.
“I would have loved to have the option to choose,” Smart said, “but I still wanted to show that I have care for the cause and I still want to keep awareness going.”
Walker sits out
Point guard Kemba Walker, who was dealing with left knee pain when the season was shut down in March, did not practice on Sunday. Walker said last week he has no pain, but Stevens said the Celtics plan to be cautious and gradually ramp up his workload in the coming weeks.