CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla will get a good opportunity to see the impact Robert Williams has on his offense and defense over the coming weeks, because the big man is healthy and the club has just two back-to-back sets before the All-Star Break.
The Celtics needed an engaged Williams in Saturday’s 122-106 win over the Hornets. He helped change the game defensively in the second period when the Celtics were laboring. Then Jayson Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon took over in the third quarter.
Williams appears completely healthy, although the organization is certainly not going to risk having him play in back-to-backs, especially when the Celtics have proven capable of winning without him. Jaylen Brown is out for Monday’s game against the Hornets. He is back in Boston rehabilitating his strained right adductor and his status for Thursday’s showdown with the Warriors is unknown.
The club received good news on the status of Derrick White, who left Saturday’s game four minutes in after sustaining a neck strain in a collision with Marcus Smart. White is probable to play Monday, giving the Celtics a healthy roster, besides Brown.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens has about 25 days to determine whether the Celtics need reinforcements before the stretch run. The trade deadline is Feb. 9, but depth doesn’t seem to be an issue with Williams back in the fold and playing consistently.
Center is a tricky position because Mazzulla has to be cautious with the minutes of Al Horford and Williams, putting the onus on players such as Luke Kornet. Kornet has exceeded all expectations, but Stevens will have to determine whether the Celtics need another big man for support.
Blake Griffin was signed to perhaps fill that reserve big man role, but he has served as more of a spot-player and positive locker room presence. Griffin has logged just 26 minutes since Dec. 13 and has only played twice this month.
The Celtics cleared a roster spot for flexibility by trading Noah Vonleh to the Spurs. Vonleh made the roster out of training camp and the club envisioned him being a physical presence in the paint but he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble and became expendable with the presence of Kornet.
With Williams healthy, the Celtics have more depth at center, but the question is how much does the organization want to push Williams in the regular season when he’ll serve his real purpose in the playoffs. Their desire is for Williams to play every game in the postseason — because there are no back-to-backs — and approach the 30-minute mark without risking injury or fatigue.
To keep Williams fresh, the Celtics almost certainly will give him days off in the second half. But they also want to secure the No. 1 seed and own home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
With Brooklyn’s home loss to Oklahoma City Sunday, the Celtics are four games up on the second-place Nets and 4½ games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Nets will be without superstar Kevin Durant for at least another three weeks while the Bucks are 8-10 in their past 18 games while waiting for All-Star Khris Middleton to return from a knee injury.
With Brown likely back in a week, and the Celtics facing just four teams with winning records over the next 12 games, there is ample opportunity to put significant distance between Boston and the other Eastern Conference competitors while also getting a strong indication of Williams’s impact.
Brogdon had nothing but compliments for Williams after Saturday’s win.
“Him being able to get on the offensive glass, I thought that’s what actually turned the game around for us,” Brogdon said. “Not only did it give us extra shots, extra threes, extra possessions, I thought it gave us energy. He was playing so hard. That was the beginning of our run.”
Williams unquestionably makes the Celtics a better team, but the club doesn’t want to play him more than half the game. Someone will need to adequately fill those minutes and Stevens will have to determine whether that player is already on the roster.
The Celtics have the Dennis Schröder trade exception of $5.8 million to absorb another contract, or they could search the free-agent market for players such as DeMarcus Cousins or a Dwight Howard, but that appears unlikely.
There is a real opportunity to put a strong grip on the No. 1 seed in coming weeks. The Celtics have seven full days off for the All-Star break after their Feb. 15 home game against the Pistons, meaning Williams should get plenty of time off that knee in the next six weeks.
The time is now for the Celtics to turn up the intensity and collect wins, making Monday’s game and this next stretch against struggling teams pivotal for their long-term goals.