Robert Williams III caught a pair of alley-oops as the Celtics’ lead approached 30 points early in the third quarter on Monday as he neared 19 minutes of playing time. His limp became more noticeable. His strides devolved into a jog. Finally, over four minutes after halftime with the game already in hand, Ime Udoka motioned toward the bench and subbed Grant Williams in for Williams III. The big man went to the locker room and returned with a massive wrap around his surgically-repaired left knee.
“He coped with it well,” Udoka told CLNS Media after Game 4. “You never know until the next day or two. A lot of times it’s the second day, which is obviously game day, where he has some of the pain. He only played 18.5 (minutes), but he played 19 in Game 2, but we truly don’t know until today until he lets us know how he feels, tomorrow as well. The swelling and pain, it’s literally day-to-day as I said, and so hopeful for the best, but never know how his body responds to it.”
Each step that Williams III helps the Celtics take closer to their 18th banner feels more precarious with their defensive anchor potentially left unavailable by any of them as the weight of each game grows. Swelling stemming from meniscus surgery in March and a bone bruise suffered in Game 3 of the Milwaukee series flared up and cost him four games against the Bucks and Game 3 against the Heat. His appearances, however limited, raised the Celtics’ defensive ceiling to the elite heights they reached before his initial injury against Minnesota nearly two months ago. Boston took a commanding 3-2 lead in the series by outscoring the Heat by 32 points in Games 4 and 5, holding Miami to 60-for-184 shooting (32.6%). The Celtics now return home one win from the NBA Finals.
Marcus Smart rejoined Williams III and their fellow starters who have rarely played together this postseason, setting up a historically poor shooting night for the Heat. They finished 30-for-94 (31.9%), their worst mark since 2010, with an abysmal 7-for-45 performance behind the three-point line. Kyle Lowry and Max Strus combined to shoot 0-for-15, the worst night for a starting back court on record in the playoffs. Even 19 offensive rebounds and 15 Celtics turnovers couldn’t spark their offense, accounting for 41 of Miami’s 80 points.
Al Horford and Williams III grounded the Heat’s offense to a halt in the half court, starving Miami to 58.8 points per 100 half court plays. The paint sealed off to the Heat’s dribble penetration, poor perimeter shooter allowed Williams III to fully embrace his drop defensive role and all that size in the paint made it nearly impossible for Bam Adebayo to operate aside from putting back offensive rebounds. Miami’s starters scored only 42 points after their historically-low 18 in Game 4.
Adebayo, who scored 31 points with six assists in Game 3 when Williams III sat, has averaged 12.4 points per 36 minutes with Williams III on the court compared to 18.1 with Williams III off. Adebayo’s efficiency fell from 63.6% to 57.9% and more importantly, his shot attempts fell from 13.2 per 36 minutes to 8.1. Credit: Kevin O’Connor on The Mismatch for originally tracking these stats entering Game 5.
“Our size and obviously what he brings to our team, I think without it being said, there’s a confidence that he brings,” Udoka told CLNS Media on Thursday. “Guys can be more aggressive on the perimeter, get to their man and be a little more physical knowing he’s there to protect the paint. He covers boxes just like Grant and Al do. The things that we ask of all our players, not just Al and R0b alone. We do have big wings, we have size all over the place. When you add Rob there instead of a guy like Grant that’s a smaller size, across the board we’re more physical, we’re bigger, longer and we can do a lot of things versatility-wise. Switch it up as far as matchups and some of the schemes we want to employ. He’s a luxury for us.”
Boston established a high floor for itself with defensive dominance when its massive starting lineup played together this season, standing out as the best in the NBA by outscoring opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions behind a 94.2 defensive rating. Horford and Williams III have topped that in their playoff minutes together since reuniting in the Milwaukee series, holding the Bucks and Heat to 91.2 points per 100 possessions when they’re playing together. Boston’s starting lineup now boasts a 103.6 defensive rating this postseason.
Jimmy Butler and Lowry’s health and the absence of Tyler Herro (groin) have played into Miami’s offensive woes. Strus succumbed to pain after getting fouled early in the third quarter, playing sparingly the rest of the way as he deals with a hamstring injury. Butler and Lowry refused to blame their struggles on their knee and hamstring, respectively, but the Celtics have outscored the Heat 251-209 since Butler exited Game 3 at halftime with knee inflammation. Lowry is shooting 5-for-23 since returning that night. The Heat, unimaginably, shot 0-for-33 on contested three-pointers in their loss on Wednesday, a stat that could potentially never be repeated.
Two of those out of P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent’s hands got blocked by Williams III recovering from the paint to the corner, Tucker nursing his own knee injury and an easy target for Williams III to help away from. Miami has no reliable floor spacing without Herro, with the Celtics’ defensive poise in the paint forcing them to shoot difficult mid-rangers and floaters. Tucker is shooting 2-for-8 against Williams III in the series, freeing Boston’s shot-blocking center to disruptively rove.
An inconsistent Victor Oladipo carried the offense for long stretches since Game 3, a night where he didn’t play in the first half. Duncan Robinson, himself a DNP-CD four times since the start of the Heat’s series against the 76ers, entered Game 5 early as Erik Spoelstra reached for any offense.
Robinson provided 11 points, but it took 12 shots and he fouled four times in 27 minutes struggling to defend. The pressure the Celtics’ defense put on the Heat inevitably made them sacrifice some of their own sturdy defense. They went smaller with Tucker at center for the second straight game, allowing Jayson Tatum to break free for 18 points and four assists on 6-for-11 shooting in the second half.
The Celtics trailed after the first quarter, 19-17, and by only five points at halftime only needing to shake their turnovers and go on one run to put the game away. It came, 24-2, between the third and fourth quarters.
Williams III’s offensive versatility gets overlooked due to his low scoring and usage. His presence alone as a threat chasing put-backs and as a roller constantly pressures the back line of a defense. The Celtics continue to adjust to his availability as they try to keep control of the ball. As they utilize him more as an outlet for high-percentage shots at or above the rim, their offense will further stabilize and help their defense by preventing transition play. That’s part of the importance of Williams III simply being available at this point, even if he’s limited. The Heat scored 41 of their 80 points following turnovers and offensive rebounds in Game 5.
“I think we talked about the spacing that we have with Rob,” Udoka said at shootaround on Wednesday. “The five offensive rebounds stand out, the lob threat stands out and we missed him quite honestly on three or four right around the basket. Just his presence out there, what he brings to us offensively and when they react to him is different … Rob’s presence is huge, we do move our guys around a little more when he’s on the court.”
He hauled in an offensive rebound with Robinson switched onto him, extending the Celtics’ lead from four to six on the way to 11 by the end of the third quarter. Boston never looked back. It doesn’t appear like the Celtics are going to as they travel back to Boston with the series on the line.
Not only do they have a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. They also have the chance to earn six days of rest leading up to Game 1 on June 2. Boston’s shown they can still defend without Williams III, posting a 99.1 defensive rating with Derrick White in his place into smaller lineups, but Grant Williams in his starting role dropped the Celtics’ starting unit to 115.5 points allowed per 100 possessions this postseason. Williams III’s availability could mean the difference between a championship or Finals loss this season.
“Rob’s been dealing with some knee things. So just keeping his spirits lifted, his confidence high and everybody just being there for him,” Tatum told CLNS after Game 4. “Because we know how hard he works and how bad he wants to be out there to help us, and obviously how much we need him.”