HOUSTON — It’s become painfully obvious that the Celtics’ best big man, their most productive center, plays fewer than 20 minutes per game.
It happened again Sunday at Toyota Center. Robert Williams, in front of family who drove here from Vivian, La., put on another show in his 19 minutes against the free-falling Houston Rockets.
He scored 16 points along with grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking three shots despite playing 40 percent of the game. The Celtics coasted to a 134-107 win, handing the Rockets their 16th consecutive loss, and Williams looked as if he’s becoming the long-awaited answer in the middle.
Here’s the issue, however. The Celtics realize Williams has been injury-prone through his first two-plus seasons, and they don’t want to risk further injury by playing him for extended minutes. Also, they have two other veteran centers in Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis who start.
When the Rockets raced the Celtics early, scoring 32 points in the first 10 minutes, Celtics coach Brad Stevens decided to go small, and Theis was the victim. Stevens shuttled Williams and Thompson in and out for the remainder of the meaningful part of the game.
Stevens has been forced to make tough decisions because his “everybody gets to play” approach in the first 30 games wasn’t working. He shortened his rotation, with Grant Williams and Aaron Nesmith exiting. Theis played less than seven minutes Sunday, and Stevens can’t worry about hurt feelings or bruised egos when the Celtics are trying to make a playoff push.
It would be easy to just play Williams, say, 35 minutes per game, but they want to keep him fresh for the stints he’s on the floor, and they also want to give Thompson an opportunity to make an impact.
The Celtics have been seeking a true impact center since Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett eight years ago. Williams has come along slowly, unable to stay healthy for long stretches until this season. But his growth is undeniable.
“I just think we make it that he can play more and more and more as the season goes on,” Stevens said. “Again, with the density of the games and his injury history, we’re just being conservative.
“But he’s getting a lot better. You can see that. And he’s able to play a little bit longer stints than he has in the past because he plays really hard when he’s out there.”
In the opening quarter, when he was already helping the Celtics rally from an early deficit, Williams was called for a foul on Kevin Porter by official Ashley Moyer-Gleich, and he vigorously disagreed with the call. Williams was as demonstrative as he ever has been on the floor, a testament to his comfort and confidence.
The next time down the floor, an irritated Williams dunked on two Rockets. It was an example of Williams being able to dominate a play or even a quarter by imposing his will.
“It was a block, so I was highly upset,” Williams said. “I felt like I blocked that. I feel like everybody is becoming more aggressive, putting a little more emotion to it. You can see that on the court.”
Williams gives the Celtics elements Theis and Thompson just can’t. They have been seeking a player who can provide easy buckets at the rim, and Williams’s teammates have increasingly flipped the ball near the basket, knowing his ability to spring up and throw it down. It’s a convenience that the Celtics haven’t had in years, and they need to resort to it more often.
“Obviously I want as many minutes as I can get,” Williams said. “My minutes ramping up is, just, I guess you can say a dream come true. I’ve just got to lock in more.”
It’s going to be up to Stevens and the coaching staff to give Williams more challenges and more opportunities as the season progresses. Stevens stressed before the game how important each game is, even one against a team on a 15-game losing streak.
Stevens said he has decided to play smaller more often because the Celtics are a more effective team. There have been times when his two-big lineup of Thompson and Theis gets punched in the mouth early in games and Williams has to step in to stabilize the defense and provide more interior scoring.
“I talked to Theis at halftime, and we’re going to be in the situation more now where one of those guys isn’t playing as much as we’re smaller,” Stevens said. “It won’t be the same guys every night. But all three are good players and Rob obviously gives us an upside we need to keep building, building, and building.”
It’s encouraging from a long-term standpoint that Stevens has made this decision, as it gives the Celtics a more athletic and dynamic look — and it sends a message that he is willing to bruise egos to get these much-needed victories. There are certain things Stevens can’t be so diplomatic about.