The Celtics are nearing full health as the chase for the No. 2 seed intensifies with big man Robert Williams expected to make his first appearance since Dec. 6 on Saturday against the Houston Rockets.
Williams had missed the past three months with a hip edema injury, an ailment the Celtics treated cautiously and Williams has been anxious to return since ramping up his practices since the All-Star Break. His presence will give Boston more depth in the front court.
While Daniel Theis has been splendid this season at center, the Celtics could use another athletic rim protector in the middle. Williams, 22, was turning into that defensive difference maker before his injury. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the club will bring Williams along slowly after such a long absence but he gives the Celtics another option.
“Everybody’s excited, nobody more so than Robert,” Stevens said. “He’s been antsy to go for a while now. We’re happy that he’s going to be able to be back.”
Point guard Kemba Walker is getting closer to a return but it won’t be Saturday, according to Stevens. Walker has missed the past four games with a sore right knee after logging 29 minutes in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game. Stevens said it’s more likely Walker would return for the March 3 matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics plan for more extensive workouts for Walker on Saturday and then perhaps full practice on Sunday.
“The goal is to have him feeling great, not just have him ready to play,” Stevens said. “So when he gets back, we’re not doing the back-and-forth as much. If we were to come back next week, I don’t anticipate him playing a back-to-back. But I do think once he gets back on the court it’s because he feels great.”
That means Walker would likely be ruled out of Wednesday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Small ball talk
The Celtics were soundly beaten by the Rockets on Feb. 11 as they were peppered by Houston’s small-ball lineup that does not feature a true center. James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 78 points and 31 free throw attempts in a 116-105 win.
Houston has decided to ditch the traditional center and force defenses to defend nothing but shooters. It acquired former Philadelphia 3-point specialist Robert Covington along with Danuel House Jr. and P.J. Tucker, all of whom can shoot from long range.
The method opened up the floor for Harden and Westbrook drives and made the Celtics susceptible to fouls. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum and Walker were a combined 1 for 13 from the 3-point line.
“I kind of get a kick out of the ‘small ball’ category because Houston is a bunch of linebackers,” Stevens said. “Tough, strong, physical, can’t post them, excellent in doing what they do best and hard to play against. The only position they’re small in is the center. They’re huge at the point and have a physical advantage at a lot of positions.”
Said forward Gordon Hayward: “It is a tough task. They obviously play a little different than anybody else in the NBA and with the guys that they have offensively, too. You have to be disciplined on both ends.”
It could be a motivated Harden on Saturday after his public exchange with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who pointed out Harden’s limitations on defense and with passing during the All-Star Break.
Harden told ESPN that he wished he were 7 feet with limited skills and all he had to do was dunk.
Harden is a former MVP and leads the league in scoring with 35.2 points per game because he has been long maligned for his shot selection and ball domination.