Celtics

Call him Lob Williams: Robert Williams is the Celtics' cheat code

Call him Lob Williams: Robert Williams is the Celtics' cheat code

BOSTON — Javonte Green had heard a lot about Robert Williams’ freakish athleticism even before the Boston Celtics summer league team came together in June. So when the duo got paired together in the first drill of the day, Green decided to see what the fuss was about and dialed up a lob. But the pass slipped out of his hand and sailed away from the intended target.

“The pass was crazy but Rob still caught it and dunked it. And with the left,” said an incredulous Green. "I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy. This is going to be fun.’”

This past weekend in San Antonio, Green got his first chance to throw a Rob Lob in an actual NBA game. The pass was better than that initial attempt but still sailed on him a bit. 

It didn’t matter. 

Williams soared to absurd heights. 6-foot-4 Spurs guard Derrick White is reaching upwards and his hand is below the waist of Williams, whose head is above the rim. LaMarcus Aldridge looks like a guard staring up at a soaring Williams.

"I guess it’s a cheat code for us,” shrugged Green.

The 22-year-old Williams produced maybe the best game of his NBA career in San Antonio, putting up 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting, which included four alley-oop finishes (three dunks, one layup), to go along with seven rebounds and six blocks over 22 minutes.

It’s not a coincidence that Boston’s lob-success rate has spiked as Williams’ playing time increases. The joke used to be that the Celtics couldn’t throw a decent lob. Now, with Williams the target, the lobs don’t even have to be good.

Just ask Marcus Smart, who has assisted on a team-high six of Williams’ 20 alley-oop finishes over the past two seasons.

"All you gotta do is just throw it anywhere around the rim and he’s going to go get it,” said Smart. "It makes our lives a lot easier. You can pretty much throw it anywhere and he's at least going to give an effort, he’s going to get a touch on it or something.

"You got a guy like that on your team, it’s pretty hard not to throw the lob. You always want to throw a lob.”

Smart said that he actually has to remind himself at times to make the simple pass and not just throw it 15 feet in the air. He knows teams might eventually start trying to eliminate the lob, though it might not matter if Williams just leaps over everybody.

Smart believes the next step for Williams is honing his post game and expanding his range. Only one of Williams’ 57 career regular-season field goals has come outside of 10 feet (an 11-foot jumper in April against the Wizards). His average shot distance is a mere 2.4 feet for his career.

But it’s hard to argue with the results. Williams leads the NBA in offensive rating with the Celtics averaging 122 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. The next closest player is old friend Aron Baynes at 119.4 in Phoenix. His nearest teammate is Kemba Walker, who is fourth in the NBA at 118.5.

Williams’ rim-running ways is a threat at all times and defenses have to protect the basket, which leaves shooters open on the perimeter. Boston’s true shooting percentage spikes to 62.4 percent when Williams is on the court (well above their season average of 55.9). 

Still, maybe the most encouraging part of the Rob Lobfest in San Antonio was how Williams spent nearly six minutes defending centers Jakob Poeltl and LaMarcus Aldridge and didn’t allow a single point. Defensive consistency is one of the final barriers to a heftier role for Williams. Yes, those volleyball-spike blocks make for nice highlights but he’s trying to be more disciplined.

Still, teammates — both current and former — marvel at his potential. After Boston’s season-opening loss in Philadelphia, old friend Al Horford sought out Williams to tell him he sees a bright future ahead for the second-year big man.

“I admire Al a lot and I want to pick up a lot of stuff from him,” said Williams. “After that game, Al just told me some encouraging words. He told me to just stay healthy, stay ready.

"That was a great vet. That’s respect from a great vet in this league, and letting me know that other people see it in you, too. But that's Al Horford — like I said, I want to learn from his game a lot.”

Horford often gives up size on the back line but his basketball IQ makes him one of the league’s best big-man defenders. Williams is still watching Horford tape trying to learn from him. 

"I’m trying to become an all-around way better defensive player,” said Williams. “Just helping more on the defensive end, which — as far as being vocal, knowing when to slide over, knowing when to contest a shot, and knowing when to just go over with my hands up — a lot goes into it. Still working on it, but hopefully I’ll get there.”

Minor ailments have cropped up at bad times early in Williams’ career and sometimes prevented him from taking full advantage of opportunities. But with Boston’s murky big man situation, Williams is going to get every chance to increase his workload this season. He might just be the ideal fit alongside Boston’s core pieces like Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.

“He’s a very special talent,” said Walker. "His athleticism is unreal, he puts so much pressure on the rim. The thing that Rob has to understand is how important he is for us and how much of a role he can play for us. 

"I’m really happy for him. His work is showing over the course of the summer. He’s definitely reading the game really well. Like I said, he’s putting so much pressure on that rim for us.”

Yes, if teammates think Williams is a bit of a cheat code now, just imagine the possibilities as he unlocks even more levels in his game.

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Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which tips off Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call of the game at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

BOSTON — With Gordon Hayward set to return possibly as early as Monday night’s game against Cleveland, he’ll be rejoining a squad that’s playing great basketball which has them among the NBA’s top teams.

But here’s the thing. 

Before suffering a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand which has been surgically repaired, Hayward and the Celtics were playing the best basketball of any team in the league. 

Can they get back to where they were with Hayward?

If they do, look for Boston to make notable strides in the following areas of play. 

OFFENSIVE OPTIONS

Now keep in mind, even when Hayward was healthy, the Celtics weren’t exactly killin’ the game with a ton of points or red-hot shooting. 

What they did more than anything else was create a pick-your-poison scenario on a game-to-game basis for defenses.

While there’s some element of that still around in his absence, there’s no debate that Hayward’s presence makes Boston a much more dangerous team to defend. 

And upon his return, the Celtics will be even more dangerous, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been delivering All-Star quality production with Hayward out, along with the solid contributions Boston has been getting all season from Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. 

DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

The NBA is all about creating mismatches on the floor, so teams with the ability to switch effectively on defense will find success. The return of Hayward gives Boston another body who has the size, strength and mobility to defend multiple positions. 

When he was healthy, the Celtics' defensive rating of 101.5 was the fifth-best mark in the NBA, which was surprising when you consider they lost defensive anchors Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) in the offseason.

Boston’s defensive rating without Hayward dipped to 104.7, which still ranks seventh in the NBA. 

And while Hayward’s defensive ability has been questioned in the past, his defensive rating of 100.6 stacks up well relative to his teammates. 

WING DEPTH

If you want to win in the NBA, you better have wings — and that’s plural, not singular. And the Celtics have more than their share of talented ones, which is why the return of Hayward is so vital to the team’s overall success. 

Hayward has the ability to do many things on the floor, evident by his stats this season which touch on all the key categories. 

In addition to averaging 18.9 points per game, Hayward is also grabbing 7.1 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game.

Those are good numbers for sure. 

But what makes the Celtics so dangerous is they have not one but two others delivering similar production or better from the wing position, in Jayson Tatum (21.2 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (20.0 points, 6.9 assists).

STRONGER BENCH

The Celtics’ second unit has taken its share of hits this season because they don’t score as much as some — OK, most — other reserve groups. Of course that’s partly because Boston has one of the highest-scoring starting fives in the NBA, which means limited opportunities for the backups and thus, less points. 

Because of that, it puts a greater premium on their bench players to come in and impact the game at the defensive end of the floor. 

And the return of Gordon Hayward will provide that group some much-needed depth with what will likely be the return of defensive ace Marcus Smart back to that unit which has been solid this season. 

According to hoopsstats.com, Boston has allowed opposing second units to score 33.4 points per game which is the fourth-fewest allowed in the NBA this season.  

That number will likely take a drop with Smart directing that group more than he is currently. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

The Boston Celtics will be missing some size on their bench for Monday night's game vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Robert Williams has been ruled out with left hip soreness, the team announced Sunday. Rookie Romeo Langford was also ruled out as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered during a game with the Maine Red Claws.

On the bright side for Boston, Gordon Hayward could make his long-awaited return to the court after missing the last month with a fractured left hand.

Hayward originally was slated to return from his injury around Christmas.

The Celtics (16-5) and Cavaliers (5-17) will face off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.