Years from now, when Robert Williams comes back to Boston from his native Louisiana with his two teenage kids and reunites with his former Celtics teammates, he’ll probably mimic the limp that he’s been dealing with for weeks now.
That limp is not a sign of weakness or deterioration. It’s how Williams is able to maneuver on his surgically repaired knee that would have required weeks of healing under normal circumstances.
But it’s the NBA Finals, and Williams is listed as “questionable” before every game because the organization is unsure how the knee will respond to the pounding of the most intense games in Williams’s life.
Before Wednesday at TD Garden, Williams must have taken a dip in the Cocoon pool with Don Ameche and Wilford Brimley because he played with a physical energy, a zip that has not been seen since the injury. He chased offensive rebounds. He swatted Golden State shots at the rim. He gathered loose balls. He trampolined high for dunks.
The Celtics got the best of Williams during their captivating 116-100 win. Three days after he hobbled off the floor in Game 2, with Warriors players yelling from the bench, “He can’t move!” on offensive possessions, Williams ignored the pain, ran vigorously with his limp and was impactful defensively in this critical win.
Williams played nearly 26 minutes, his most of the series, and finished with 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocked shots, 3 steals, and several altered shots at the rim. The Celtics needed rim-protecting Rob for Game 3 if they had any hopes of responding from their Game 2 drubbing.
And it was uncertain whether he would physically be able to provide that resistance at the rim. He underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus March 30 and returned on April 23, with the organization knowing the knee needed constant attention and would swell after games. Williams then sustained a bone bruise in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks and missed the final four games of the series.
He has labored since, missing Game 3 of the conference finals against the Miami Heat. Since then, he’s played in seven consecutive games, giving the Celtics whatever he can give. Sometimes the results are unexceptional and other nights, he displays flashes of defensive brilliance and offensive dominance at the rim.
“Just trying to be accountable for my team,” he said. “We made it this far. Like I said, obviously I had a discussion with myself, by pushing through this. I’m happy with how it’s going. We’ll worry about the injury after the season, but for now I’m still fighting.”
Those “questionable” listings before each game are not gamesmanship. They’re legit. Williams has felt a variety of ways after games during the postseason, from extremely sore to somewhat nimble. Doctors have told the Celtics Williams cannot add further damage to the knee, so it’s a matter of pain.
And one-legged players aren’t helpful in the high-level NBA Finals. Williams needs to be productive when he’s on the floor. So his recovery from game to game is a meticulous process.
“At this point of the season it is what it is. We talked about it. But he doesn’t do a whole lot physically in between, so you don’t get a true sense until he really gets a good warmup,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “The day after it feels OK at times. The second day sometimes it’s more sore. So it comes and goes. That’s why we’re being deliberate about listing him and really checking him out in case he feels worse.
“The swelling has been good. Pain has been tolerable. It’s a legit day-to-day situation, and when he ramps up before the game, that’s when we know how he really feels.”
Williams’s importance to the team’s success is unquestioned. He is a jumping jack in the paint with the ability to close out on 3-point shooters and also an above-average feel for the game and basketball I.Q. His ability to bounce back from injury has been his major detractor during his career. He’s been nagged by nagging injuries in his first three seasons. It’s kept him off the floor for 51 games over the past two seasons.
But this isn’t the regular season. This is where legends are made, banners are won, teams are immortalized. The Celtics need a 70 percent Robert Williams. They need him to withstand the pain, learn to run with the hitch in his step and protect the rim, dissuade Stephen Curry from attacking the rim.
He deals with the obvious pain, rests during off days and then ramps up his workouts on game days. Early Wednesday he rode the stationary bike, felt nimble and informed coaches to remove the “questionable” from his status.
He showing not only his coaches, but his teammates and Celtics faithful that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to reach ultimate goal.
“I’m constantly talking to Rob, just for the simple fact I know what he’s going through,” guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s hurting, and even though he’s hurt he still wants to get out and help his team. But at the same time, he’s thinking about his career. Like I just told him, you know your body. You know what you can withstand and what you can’t. But just know, we’ve got a chance to do something special. There’s no guarantees that we’ll be back here.
“If you can go, we’ll take 20 percent of you better than none of you. He understood that, and he decided to go out there and put his big boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy.”