Oshae Brissett, after accelerating past Jayson Tatum, seemed to have a clear path to the basket and a layup that would have knotted the Celtics and Pacers late in overtime on Monday night.
Robert Williams had different plans.
Scrambling across the paint, Williams aggressively swatted Brissett’s layup attempt off the backboard and, in the process, ignited a fast break the other way that culminated with Jaylen Brown making an extra pass for a Grant Williams 3-pointer that essentially sealed Boston’s win.
“Rob covers for us so well and does such a good job on defense, man,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston in his postgame walk-off interview. “He should be in the category for first team All-Defense, in my opinion.”
Williams made one heck of a pitch for consideration on Tuesday night. The Pacers finished 1-of-17 shooting when defended by Williams. The frontcourt combo of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner combined for just one point on 0-for-5 shooting against him. The Pacers missed all seven 3-point attempts defended by Williams.
It was the best of a solid stretch for Williams. In the six games since Celtics coach Ime Udoka challenged Williams to be more disciplined after a rough outing in Minnesota, Williams has limited opponents to 38.3 percent shooting (36 of 94 overall). That’s a staggering 8.9 percent lower than his opponent’s expected field goal percentage over that span.
“He’s an anchor back there,” Udoka told NBC Sports Boston. “Obviously, rim protects well but he also is guarding on the perimeter, doing a lot of different things. He’s starting to read the game better, offensively and defensively. His growth is crucial for us. But you’re starting to see steps in the consistency, that's the thing I love about him.”
Williams has blocked two or more shots in each of his last nine games. In fact, he has 31 total blocks in that nine-game span. He’s averaging 2.2 blocks per game, third in the NBA trailing only Turner (2.9) and Rudy Gobert (2.3).
Williams would be the first Celtics player in 31 years to average better than two blocks per game. Kevin McHale did it in 1990-91 while averaging 2.1 swats per game in his final All-Star season.
The Celtics allow 104.6 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor this season and only Brown (101.8) has a better mark among regulars. Williams' 349 contested shots this season are second on the team behind only Al Horford (363). Williams routinely picks up perimeter players in Boston’s switch-happy system and, despite some obvious speed advantages for those players, Williams routinely stays solid and forces guards to shoot over his Stretch Armstrong-like arms.
But back to what Brown suggested: Could Williams truly earn All-Defense consideration?
“That's a big honor. For me, I'm really just trying to do what my team needs me to do,” Williams said when apprised of Brown’s suggestion. "I don’t necessarily look at it like that. I do feel like I impact the defensive end."
The biggest impediment for Williams might simply be available slots. The NBA only honors two All-Defense teams, meaning there are only two center spots up for grabs. And Rudy Gobert is all but guaranteed one of those slots.
Unless voters were willing to slot Williams as a forward -- not an outlandish suggestion given Boston’s penchant for two-big lineups but a more likely option for someone like Anthony Davis -- then Williams is left jousting with the likes of Joel Embiid, Jarrett Allen, and Deandre Ayton for the second available center spot.
At the midpoint of an often-frustrating 2021-22 season, Williams’ development is near the top of Boston’s silver linings. Not only has he thrived as an every-night starter but the Celtics have cranked his workload and he’s maintained much of his efficiency.
Williams might eventually muscle his way into that All-Defense conversation but he’s going to have to continue to assert himself. The better news for Boston is that Williams may have only scratched the surface on how impactful he can be on the defensive end. If he can continue to improve his conditioning and his discipline, his numbers could spike even further.
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The rest of the league is slowly starting to take notice. But Williams' progress has already caught the attention of Boston’s superstars.
"I'm like the biggest Rob Williams fan and I have been for a very long time," said Tatum.
"Just the maturity and growth that he's shown over these last couple of years. Rob has been playing a lot more consistent, played 41 minutes tonight, he's just contributing something on a nighty basis. I'm glad he's on our team."