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Robert Williams’ athletic presence in post bodes well for Celtics future

Celtics center Robert Williams (44) is an imposing and athletic shot-blocking presence in the paint that teams like the Brooklyn Nets must now account for.Elsa/Getty

NEW YORK — Late in the first quarter of the Celtics’ playoff game against the Nets on Saturday, Brooklyn point guard Kyrie Irving shimmied and shook as he went toward the rim, causing Celtics defender Evan Fournier to stumble, and causing the Barclays Center crowd of nearly 15,000 to erupt.

Few ball-handlers can make a defender look as silly as Irving can, and these moments, and the buzz they create, seem to serve as fuel for the talented point guard. They empower him to do it all again at the next opportunity, just with more flash.

In this case, that opportunity came on the Nets’ next possession. Irving was prancing out on the open floor when Celtics center Robert Williams came out toward the top of the key to stop him. Most centers would be helpless in this situation.

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Irving used a devastating first step to blitz past Williams, but the big man’s recovery was even more impressive. As Irving switched the ball to his left hand and went up for a layup, Williams soared and batted the offering out of bounds.

Brooklyn's Blake Griffin was lucky enough to get this shot off against Robert Williams III in the first half of Saturday's game.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

“His timing,” Irving said after Brooklyn’s 104-93 win, “is amazing.”

For Williams, that tone-setting swat was just the start. The third-year big man set a franchise playoff record with nine blocked shots in just 22 minutes, 40 seconds of action. And they came in every way imaginable.

Williams reached out and sent back a James Harden 3-point attempt. He stymied Nicolas Claxton in the post, and then appeared spring-loaded as he did it again after Claxton had gathered the first one. He blocked Bruce Brown three times and gave the Boston native a playful hug as Brown pleaded with the officials for a goaltend. Williams was dominant.

“I think too many times we lined him up to go against him, and we did unnecessarily,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “But he was outstanding, and then other times, he was just great. Made big plays, whether it was on the ball, off the ball, used his length and athleticism. But there were times we were a little bit naive at times to go at him unnecessarily in the wrong positions.”

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Williams, who also added 11 points and 9 rebounds, said he’d never had a nine-block game before, even in high school.

“But it don’t mean [expletive] if we’re losing,” he said.

His performance on Saturday came after he missed five of the last seven games, as well as parts of the other two, because of a turf toe injury that is still causing some pain. If he continues to show improvement, his workload will be increased over the course of this series. But even if it does not, he has shown that he can have a substantial impact even while playing less than half of a game.

The Nets will certainly be more aware of his presence during Tuesday night’s Game 2.

Robert Williams III also showed a nice touch on the offensive end as well Saturday against the Nets.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

“He’s very athletic, which we knew,” Harden said. “But he contested everything both at the rim and on the perimeter. He did a great job of using his length. He’s a part of one of the reasons why we didn’t shoot the ball well.”

The Celtics didn’t provide many reasons to believe that this series will last very long, and their season will likely be over soon. But Williams’s strong play this season, which carried over into Game 1, has been an encouraging development for the future.

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His workload was limited for much of the season as he worked his way back from last season’s hip injury, and he also dealt with toe and knee issues. But his per-36-minute numbers were startling: 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 3.3 blocks.

A dominant playoff performance would provide some hope moving forward, which is probably all the Celtics can lean on at this point.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.