Celtics center Robert Williams still isn’t sure exactly when he injured his left knee during the win over the Timberwolves last Sunday. He thinks it might have occurred after he tried to contest a jump shot by forward Taurean Prince, but he knew during that third quarter that something was wrong, and he did not feel good about it.
Williams said the pain began to increase with each step, and he was thankful that coach Ime Udoka took him out of the game because he was ready to ask for a replacement anyway. When Williams was on the bench, he did not even want to stand up because he was certain it would hurt quite a bit.
“I knew something happened that was going to stop me from playing,” Williams said Saturday. “I was just telling Payton [Pritchard] on the bench, I was like, ‘I’m kind of nervous, but my knee is hurting.’ I tried to walk around a little bit. I couldn’t walk around.”
On Monday, tests revealed that Williams had suffered a torn meniscus. He underwent surgery on Thursday and is expected to be sidelined 4-6 weeks. That could put him in position to return in the second round of the playoffs, and there is optimism that he could be back on the earlier side of the projected timeline.
Nevertheless, it is a substantial loss for the Celtics, who had rocketed from 11th place to the top of the Eastern Conference standings over the past three months, with Williams playing a key role. He is averaging 10 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game while connecting on 73.6 percent of his shots.
On offense, he is a perfect safety valve as a lob threat, and it often appears that there are no limits to how high he can go to receive these passes. On defense, he lurks near the rim, and even when he is not blocking shots he is making opponents think about that possibility.
“Do we miss Rob?” forward Jayson Tatum said after the Celtics squeaked past the Pacers, 128-123 on Friday. “Of course.”
But Williams is encouraged by the fact that he still has a good chance to return this season. He felt relief in his knee almost instantly after surgery and he is already moving more fluidly. He is not using crutches or a brace; the knee is simply protected by a sleeve. Now, he is eager to start taking important steps in his rehab.
“Right now just a lot of non-movement stuff, lot of loading my tendons, strengthening everything around the tear or that muscle,” Williams said. “And as time progresses there’s a lot of boxes you have to check, obviously. You have to walk fine before you can run. You have to run in a straight line before you can make angles or cuts. Lot of different boxes you have to check, but feel like we’re on the right path.”
Williams’s game is built on explosiveness. When he returns, it will not be to stand at the arc and take spot-up jumpers; it will be to swat away shots and throw down dunks. He’ll need to be able to do those things comfortably before he is cleared to rejoin his teammates.
“Obviously, there’s nothing that can compare to playing in an NBA game or the playoffs, but just got to get out there,” Williams said. “Like riding a bike again. Get out there, get my wind under me, and I feel like I should be good.”
Williams is confident that this team can maintain its strong play without him. The Celtics have given up just 104.3 points per game this season, but over these last three games with Williams out — two losses — they’ve allowed an average of 114.7. And once the postseason begins, there will be no free passes.
“Obviously, I feel like they can do it,” Williams said. “But I’m just glad to see them covering for each other.”