Celtics center Robert Williams has reiterated to coach Ime Udoka is he’s not afraid or daunted by hard coaching. The fourth-year center seeks to be a difference-maker on a consistent basis, yet his progression has been bumpy, especially in the past few weeks.
He has been outplayed by the likes of JaVale McGee and Nathan Knight over the past few weeks, and Udoka singled out Williams for his poor defensive decision-making in that stunning loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It’s games such as Friday, however, when Williams shows the organization, Udoka and his teammates his upside with a stellar all-around performance. The big man notched his first triple-double at the most opportune time, helping the Celtics snap a three-game losing streak with a 123-108 win over the Phoenix Suns, one of the best teams in the NBA.
The Suns were missing centers Deandre Ayton and McGee to COVID-19 protocol, and Williams went to work in the paint, scoring 10 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists as Boston led by as many as 30 and spent the final two quarters staving off Phoenix rallies.
Williams has impressed the organization with his surprising passing ability but only once this season had he collected more than four assists in a game. This time, however, his teammates were turning his passes into points as the Celtics responded from Wednesday’s horrible 4-for-42 3-point shooting night by shooting 54.2 percent and 10 of 27 3-pointers.
Injury and inconsistency have prevented Williams from making more of an impact on a team that has sought a defensive-minded center since Kendrick Perkins. Williams has mostly been healthy this season and he’s been working with Udoka to improve.
“I guess he sees something in me I don’t,” Williams said. “I’m thankful for the way he’s pushing me every day, trying to get that out of me, I guess. It’s just an honor to have him talking like that and obviously it’s more I’ve got to achieve.”
Udoka said Williams was lackadaisical defensively against the Timberwolves on Monday, leaving the paint open to challenge a jump shot. He also picked up five fouls before the conclusion of the third quarter, forcing Udoka to bench him for key stretches of the fourth quarter.
“He’s more than people think he is,” Udoka said. “I told him about expanding his game, the role, the minutes increasing and what we see is a high, high ceiling for him. He’s one guy I know that can take coaching and can take coaching hard. I don’t really look at it as calling him out [Monday]; I obviously told him the same thing about keeping yourself in the game. He’s been a guy that’s been resilient and bounced back every time I’ve challenged him. I love that about him.”
Williams notched 8 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in the first half as the Celtics led by 30, shocking the defending Western Conference champions, including Devin Booker, who did not play in the first matchup three weeks ago.
Williams also added five blocked shots and controlled the paint defensively, preventing the Suns from getting easy layups as they did in the first meeting.
“As far as being an anchor defensively, I’m realizing the team needs me as well as we need everybody else,” Williams said. “As far as being an anchor defensively, communication-wise, I realize they expect communication out of me, I’m a starter on this team for a reason. Just knowing they trust me enough to take what I’m saying and put an effort toward fixing it is big for me.”
After a series of frustrating losses and blown leads, Williams said accountability is the key to the Celtics recapturing their winning ways. He said he had no issue accepting criticism.
“We’ve just been questioning each other, honestly,” he said. “Not even in a bad way. You can’t take criticism from teammates in this league, you know you can’t play. I feel this game was just a respect game, a fight game. We wanted to show we’re here.
“If I [expletive] up on something, none of my teammates is scared to approach me. It can’t be like that. I have be able to take it, slap on the chest and keep going. I feel like everybody is getting better at that. I feel like this was a game where we put an emphasis on that, don’t get caught up in crying. After one mistake, if we’re missing shots, keep playing defense, keep running back. Be up for each other.”
The Suns pushed the Celtics in the second half, slicing the deficit to 13 with 6:51 left in the third quarter before Boston countered with an 8-0 run. The Suns again rallied to make it an 11-point game with less than five minutes left but Jaylen Brown (24 points) and Marcus Smart (24 points) countered with back-to-back buckets to seal it.
“It’s a great win, Celtic basketball,” Brown said. “We played with some pace and intensity on both sides of the ball. We came out and we played basketball today. Some days are ugly and today was good. Let’s just try to build off this one and keep it going.”
Brown, who scored the bucket to record Williams’s 10th assist, is one of his biggest supporters.
“Rob is great, Rob is exceptional,” Brown said. “I think he’s a really talented player. At times, he puts a lot of pressure on himself, similar to me. When you come out and play basketball, there’s not a lot of people that can contain him on both ends. His effect on defense and offense tonight, everybody saw. We need him to be as consistent as possible.”