NEW YORK — When Celtics center Robert Williams was ruled out of Boston’s preseason finale against the Heat last week because of tendinitis in his knee, it sparked some concern.
Williams has flashed heaps of potential since being drafted in 2018, but hip and knee issues limited him to just 113 games over his first three seasons. Then Wednesday’s season opener against the Knicks began, and it became clear that Boston is ready to lean on Williams more than it ever has before.
The center played a career-high 45 minutes in his team’s 138-134 double-overtime loss, registering 16 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists. He was 5 for 5 from the field. Entering the game, Williams had played more than 30 minutes just once in his career.
“It’s what I’ve been wanting, right?” Williams said of the larger workload. “So, mentally I was ready, prepared for a third overtime if that was the case. But it’s for sure something I’ve been wanting, so I’m ready.”
The Celtics have no interest in seeing Williams play 45 minutes again this season, of course. His role was expanded with Al Horford sidelined because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, and then the game rolled into a pair of overtimes.
“At the beginning of the second OT I started feeling the legs a little bit,” Williams said. “But you’ve just got to be mentally strong and be able to push through.”
With Grant Williams struggling to guard Knicks All-Star Julius Randle, Robert Williams was tasked with that responsibility later in the game, too. The Celtics had been switching on every screen throughout the game, but in this case Williams was instructed to stay with Randle no matter what, to avoid potential mismatches.
Although that did lead to some miscommunication elsewhere, as former Celtic Evan Fournier caught fire after being left open beyond the arc, Randle was held to just 3 points over the two overtimes, and Williams committed just one foul in the game.
“He’s a great player, can’t take that from him,” Williams said of Randle, who on Thursday was fined $15,000 by the league for throwing the game ball into the spectator stands at Madison Square Garden. “I was just being myself, playing defense, knowing personnel. I also trusted my teammates that they got my help behind me.”
Walker glad to be home
When former Celtics point guard Kemba Walker was introduced in the starting lineup on Wednesday, the New York native made an X with his arms, a nod to his hometown borough, the Bronx. The crowd roared, and Walker knew he was home.
“I’m really a kid from the Bronx, born and raised in this city,” Walker said. “To put that jersey on for the first time, for the real regular season, and being announced, man, it was definitely an amazing feeling.”
But the homecoming almost turned sour for Walker when he committed a pair of critical turnovers in the final 30 seconds of regulation, allowing the Celtics to improbably force overtime when Marcus Smart drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I was disappointed in myself a little bit,” Walker said. “It was a little bit of a mental mistake on my behalf. It happens. I’ve done a lot of crazy, not-smart things in my career, that was definitely one of them. But it happens. You’ve got to find a way to stick together, you got to find a way to come out on top, and that’s what we did.”
At the end of the game Walker greeted a few of his former Celtics teammates, and he and Jaylen Brown did the special handshake that they created when they were in Boston together. Walker was traded to the Thunder last season in a salary-shedding move and ultimately signed with the Knicks after agreeing to a contract buyout. But he said his relationships with the Celtics will endure.
“I have a lot of love for those guys,” he said. “You could see it before the game. I have a great relationship, man. I just came from the locker room with those guys, talking to those guys. Those are my brothers. Those are my brothers. Over the last two years we became really close. So for me being on a different team, it’s not going to change anything.”
No Celtics games in China
Celtics games have been removed from Tencent, which streams NBA games in China, following comments by center Enes Kanter in support of Tibetan freedom. Kanter shared a three-minute video on his social media accounts Wednesday in which he blasted the Chinese government for its policies related to Tibet.
“Shame on the Chinese government,” Kanter said. “The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture.”
He also took aim at Chinese president Xi Jinping, calling him a “dictator.” Kanter did not play against the Knicks on Wednesday but wore shoes with ‘Free Tibet’ on them. Kanter, who is Turkish, has been an outspoken critic of the Turkish government and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over the years, too. He said his passport was revoked four years ago.
This is not the first controversy related to NBA broadcasts in China. Two years ago then-Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong’s push for democracy, and China’s state-run broadcaster responded by no longer showing NBA games. Morey is now the general manager of the 76ers, and Philadelphia’s games are not being streamed in China this year.