MILWAUKEE — Robert Williams III will enter Friday night’s elimination game questionable for the third straight game with left knee soreness. Scans revealed that Williams suffered a small bone bruise when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo collided during the second half of Game 3. The swelling remains down, but through the past two games the pain and movement restriction.
“Everything structurally is good,” Ime Udoka said this morning. “He still has some soreness and pain. It revealed had a small bone bruise from a collision he took in Game 3. So structurally he’s fine from the surgery.”
The pain is afflicting the same knee Williams underwent meniscus surgery on in late March, and his absence left the Celtics smaller against the Bucks’ massive front line. Udoka and Boston’s medical staff originally linked the soreness to normal pain following the surgery, but Friday’s development proved encouraging and worrisome at the same time. They’ve started Grant Williams in Williams III’s place, who’s once again struggled transitioning to a starting role. Later in games, Udoka downsized with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup, exposing the Celtics to 13 offensive rebounds in Game 4 and 17 in Game 5, including the crucial one that sealed the game.
Williams is hurt enough where he can’t be active even situationally or for small minutes, not a great sign entering an elimination game for the Celtics, who looked like the best team in the NBA with their starting unit of Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Brown, Tatum and Williams III intact. Williams aimed to become healthier this season and did, before a meniscus surgery he fought to return from sooner than anticipated in response to his growing value to the team. Some had urged Williams to wait longer with Boston in control of its series against Brooklyn.
Williams’ injury projected to rock Boston’s season when he fell in the second half against the Timberwolves on Mar. 27 in what initially looked like a season-ending injury. Instead, the greatest impact on the Celtics has been his unsteady return to the lineup, starting with conditioning and minutes limits against Brooklyn and flowing into struggles against Milwaukee.
Now, despite an encouraging long-term prognosis for Williams since his latest ailment is unrelated to surgery, that doesn’t immediately aid Horford, who averaged 41.5 minutes over the past two games, and the front court digging deeper into Williams and Daniel Theis minutes.
Having another reliable body alone helps in a series where the Celtics have committed 22.6 fouls per game, and while there isn’t much statistical evidence that the Celtics keep opponents off the offensive glass with Williams III on the floor the larger number of opponent misses through his minutes creates more opportunities for teams to grab their own. That inherently influences Williams’ rebounding numbers, and while he’s better on the offensive glass, having him wouldn’t hurt on the defensive end.
That, of course, depends what kind of Williams the Celtics receive when or if he returns. Williams III shot 60% through the first three games, down from 73.6% in the season, grabbed 5.7 rebounds per game, down from 9.6 RPG, and his fouls each night bumped from 2.2 to 3.7. This proved to be a bad matchup for Williams III, Antetokounmpo targeting and laying Williams III out on numerous possessions earlier in the series. Boston tried to isolate Horford and Williams on Antetokounmpo then, but the Bucks have since improved at lining their star up against favorable matchups like Brown and Tatum.
The Celtics benefited from Horford stepping up in Williams III’s absence with the game of his career, scoring 30 points in a season-saving performance that sparked a comeback win in Game 4. Theis, too, gave the Celtics solid production, scoring 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting in Game 5 in +7 minutes. Grant Williams scored 0 points in 30 minutes after his lineups got outscored by 17 in Game 4, landing on the bench in crunch time as Boston downsized. Losing Williams III has Udoka stuck between smaller and larger lineups, each featuring distinct pros and cons.
“It was a decision to make. We didn’t have to,” Udoka told CLNS Media regarding going small in Game 4. “Grant was fine and Al was running long minutes, so we could’ve stayed big, but liked what Derrick was doing, how he was attacking. Jayson and Jaylen, felt like they guarded Antetokounmpo better than they did overall in the first few games. So didn’t need to bring our bigs back as well. We challenged those guys to guard a little tougher and meet him with more forceful contact and they did that. So it gave us the luxury to bring Grant back or stay with the smaller lineup, and it obviously stressed them a little bit with their bigs out there, opened some things up driving in the lane wise. But not a whole lot different from what Grant brings in terms of stretching the court. Just another guy to attack and Derrick was extra aggressive.”
Tatum boasted Boston’s best rebounding numbers in Game 5, hauling in 27% of Milwaukee’s misses, while Theis factored into a measly 9.3%. By comparison, Williams grabbed 10% during Boston’s while Horford grabbed 37.5%. That proved to be the only rebounding battle Boston won in the series.
Rebounding isn’t everything. The Celtics ranked No. 1 in defense while finishing No. 16 with a 72.5 DREB% during the regular season. They’re down to 69% in this series though, enough of a drop for a few loose offensive rebounds to leak out and hand the Bucks five game-changing extra points in the final minutes of a game that otherwise would’ve put Boston in full control tonight.
Other issues like spacing, attacking Milwaukee’s switching defense in crunch time and ball control all probably supersede defensive rebounding, but that’s a clear area Williams III could sure up if he makes his return to the lineup tonight or, if necessary, Sunday.
“Rob’s special,” Derrick White said at shootaround. “We’ve been saying that all year, and what he does nobody else in the league does. It’s always great to have him out there, and when he’s out there he always does great for us. We talk to him every day. He’s doing good, doing what he does and whenever he gets the green light to play we know he’s going to play his heart out.”