NEW YORK — Celtics center Robert Williams was cleared to play in Game 3 against the Nets on Saturday night. He came off the bench and played 15 minutes, 34 seconds in the 109-103 victory, totaling 2 points, 2 rebounds, and a blocked shot.
“The build-up has been good,” coach Ime Udoka said before the game, indicating Williams would be limited to 20 minutes. “He’s met every benchmark and has had no problems or restrictions. No swelling, pain. And so after the heavy sessions, he’s felt really good and so that was kind of what led up to it. And I would say even before this week, he was progressing well at all points.”
Williams has been sidelined since tearing the meniscus in his left knee during Boston’s March 27 win over the Timberwolves. He underwent surgery three days later, and the Celtics announced he would likely be sidelined for 4-6 weeks.
Less than four weeks have passed since then. The franchise tends to err on the side of caution with its injury timelines, but Williams suffered no setbacks. He completed some scrimmages with the team and came through them without issue.
“I feel like we’re at our best when we have Rob on the court out there being the X-factor of our team,” forward Grant Williams said. “The guy that we all can rely on. The guy that can be the dependable safety net and the one that I think gives us that real potential at the end of the day. So it’s great to have him.”
Williams had the best regular season of his four-year career. He averaged 10 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game, and emerged as a potential All-Defensive team selection.
But Boston’s league-leading defense hardly slipped with him out. Veteran Daniel Theis replaced Williams in the starting lineup, and Grant Williams assumed a more prominent role with smaller frontcourt units, helping Boston open up a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series against the Nets.
“I mean, we’re one of the top defensive teams for a reason, and that’s as a whole group,” Udoka said. “Obviously, we have a ton of really good individual defenders, but he’s a huge part of that and his presence out there, you can see the difference from teams when they’re attacking the basket and just looking around for him. And so he gives us a ton of versatility just as Marcus [Smart], Jaylen [Brown], Jayson [Tatum], and Al [Horford] do, and so he’s just a piece of that, and makes us really elite at that level.”
No resting against Kevin Durant
The Celtics made life quite difficult for Nets superstar Kevin Durant the first two games of this series. The forward made 13 of 41 shots and committed 12 turnovers. Udoka said Boston’s physical play has been essential. The Celtics held Durant to 16 points in Game 3.
“And attention to where he is at all times, by not only the initial player guarding him, but the team in general,” Udoka said. “So Game 1, he got away from us at times and missed some shots. But Game 2, we were much better as far as taking up the air space, sending him to where we want to, and then our help coming. And so attention to detail has been great.”
There is a fine line between physicality and fouling too much, however. Durant made 18 of 20 free throws in Game 2, and Boston would obviously prefer to keep him off the line if possible. He only had two free throws Saturday.
“But he’s missed some shots that are makeable, that he’s obviously made his whole career,” Udoka said, “and so we got to continue to pay attention to that and not let him get going.”
Ben Simmons still possible for Game 4
Nets coach Steve Nash said that point guard Ben Simmons completed some three-on-three workouts Saturday, and added that the three-time All-Star could make his season debut in Game 4 on Monday.
Simmons was acquired from the 76ers in February and has not played since last season’s playoffs, due to mental health reasons and a back injury.