The Celtics are planning for life without Robert Williams, who underwent a knee procedure Wednesday that will determine whether he can return from his torn left meniscus during the playoffs.
The best-case scenario is for Williams, injury-prone and not a fast healer, to come back in 4-6 weeks. But if rehab from the procedure is delayed, will cost him the playoffs and the Celtics will have to adjust with a trio of big men who don’t possess Williams’ athleticism but could combine to compensate adequately.
But it won’t be easy and it will require Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, and Al Horford to be at their best, and coach Ime Udoka to devise defensive strategies and lineups that can keep the Celtics at a similar defensive level.
A prime example was Monday against Toronto, where the shorthanded Celtics – without Williams, Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown – held the fully-loaded Raptors to 43 percent shooting, including a combined 8-for-25 from the backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.
The issue was 40 points from Pascal Siakam, and the absence of Horford meant smaller Aaron Nesmith had to defend him in key stretches.
If Celtics faithful eventually gained enough trust in Udoka to resurrect what had been a disheartening season, they should trust him to keep Boston a top 5 defensive team without Williams.
“It will be crucial (the final six games) to take a look at some different things,” Udoka said. “Looking at different rotations and what we like and don’t like. Just to see how Daniel mixes in with Al or possibly Grant and look at those combinations.”
There will be a lot of pressure on Theis, the veteran who is in his second stint with the Celtics and has played in big playoff games for Boston. His acquisition was considered a luxury because Robert Williams and Horford were going to get a majority of the minutes while Grant Williams has shown the ability to guard bigger players.
But now Theis becomes the Celtics’ primary big man, especially with scoring at the rim. Horford is more of a 3-point threat, but Theis does have the ability to catch lobs and score in the paint against opposing centers.
What the Celtics will miss desperately is Williams’ ability to score easy points on lobs. Can Theis do similar things? Maybe not with the flair or the punctuation as Williams, but he does have that ability.
Also, Theis can score with short jumpers. The one weakness that remains in Williams’s game is his inability to score in the midrange or with short jumpers. Theis can knock down jumpers off the pick-and-roll, which is one of his strengths.
Defensively, the Celtics need to be more cohesive to make up for Williams’s rim protection. He is second in the NBA in blocked shots and he’s altered or prevented countless others. He also cleaned up for mistakes of the Celtics’ guards and forwards in allowing dribble penetration.
“We can play with several different coverages with Daniel,” Udoka said. “I feel good about that three-man rotation (Horford and G. Williams). Obviously, it was huge getting Daniel in the trade for this reason. Just keep it going.
“We’re also confident in Jayson and Jaylen, our big wings guarding (power forwards), switch it up there and rely on our three-man big rotation.”
The Celtics are going to need their good defenders to become better and they must rely on the backcourt of Marcus Smart and Derrick White to shut down opposing backcourts, as they did against Toronto.
“Obviously Rob has a huge impact on both sides of the floor,” White said. “He can’t be replaced with what he does. He’s unique in that aspect. But we got Theis and Al and Grant and people that can step up and do what we need them to do to help them win games. We trust those guys.”
The Celtics signed Juwan Morgan to a 10-day contract Monday and will have one open roster spot if they allow that to expire. They could add another legitimate center from the G-League for depth. At this point, any roster addition would not be relied upon for anything besides a spot role.
Udoka also gave little-used 7-footer Luke Kornet time against Toronto and he produced six points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes. He has proven when given the opportunity.
There aren’t many options this late in the season. The Williams injury is debilitating because he was turning into a top-notch defender and the Celtics’ first rim protector since Kevin Garnett, but they do have veteran personnel to compensate and their defensive approach will look different but likely not quite as effective.