Celtics

Celtics rookie Robert Williams ready if role increases

Celtics rookie Robert Williams ready if role increases

BOSTON — The Celtics were working on out-of-bounds sets at Monday’s practice when coach Brad Stevens sidled up next to Robert Williams and asked the rookie about the jaw-dropping alley-oop he threw down for his first NBA points in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win in Detroit.

It turns out Williams messed up the play.

“Coach told me it was supposed to be a comeback screen and I was supposed to turn around and go screen again,” Williams said with a sheepish grin. 

After initially screening for Gordon Hayward, Williams saw a clear path to the rim and rumbled towards the basket as Marcus Smart sent a big lob that Williams caught above the charge circle before throwing down a vicious two-handed slam as Boston’s entire bench spilled onto the floor in celebration.

“[Stevens] said, ‘Rob, it’s alright if you run the play wrong as long as you jump 13 feet in the air and dunk it,’” Williams said with a chuckle. "So if I’m gonna [mess] it up, I gotta be prepared to dunk it.”

Stevens confirmed that Williams went off script, but he’s OK with some freelancing if it ends the way it did that night. Said Stevens: "I told him, ‘You can run them all wrong if you dunk it at 13 feet."

    Logging his first extended regular-season minutes on Saturday, Williams offered a tantalizing glimpse of his potential, not only with the loud alley-oop but with three blocks, two rebounds, and one fancy assist over eight minutes.

    The 6-foot-10 Williams could be in line for more playing time after the Celtics announced Monday that second-year big man Daniel Theis will be sidelined indefinitely due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

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    Boston should get a frontcourt reinforcement Tuesday with Aron Baynes, sidelined the past three games due to a sore right hamstring, expected to return. But if Baynes’ minutes are limited and Theis is out, then Boston’s only other pure bigs behind starter Al Horford would be Williams and Guerschon Yabusele. 

    Williams has played just 11 total minutes through six games and will be asked to learn on the fly but Stevens has complete confidence in the No. 27 pick in this year’s draft. Especially because of the unique athleticism he brings to the court.

    "The vertical athleticism, that vertical separation, is what people are looking for off pick-and-rolls. Then on the [defensive] end, that's where [his athleticism] can be really effective,” said Stevens. "He’s gotta have an expeditious learning curve with not playing as much early.

    “But I have no doubt he could be thrown in when it’s all on the line.”

    That’s a particularly bold statement considering how most expected Williams to toil in Maine with the G-League Red Claws given Boston’s depth and the rookie’s need for game reps. Williams missed much of summer league with knee tendinitis and played only 40 total minutes in the preseason.

    Williams is such a freak athlete that he gives the Celtics a jolt of something they have long lacked, and moments like that loud alley-oop — improvised or not — might strengthen Williams' case for additional court time.

    But even his mother is giving him grief about messing up that play, among others.

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    “S---, really just a bunch of criticism on the s--- I did wrong,” Williams said Monday when asked how his family and friends reacted to the highlight-reel alley-oop. "My mom got on my a-- about the angles of the screens I was setting. Hey, it's tough love, it’s what I need.”

    Williams has gotten plenty of advice after making a less-than-stellar first impression in Boston. Williams, a projected lottery talent, didn’t attend the draft in New York, electing instead to be with friends and family at a Buffalo Wild Wings in his native Louisiana. The next morning, he overslept a conference call with Boston reporters.

    After a more formal introduction at the team’s sparkling new practice facility a few days later, Williams missed a flight and was absent for the team's first summer league practice of the season.

    Otherwise, he’s been a model student, soaking up all he can from veterans like Al Horford. The Celtics assigned coaching assistant Alex Barlow to work with Williams, who even rented a place within walking distance of the Auerbach Center in Brighton so that he could ensure on-time arrivals.

    Asked what has stood out about Williams’ development since draft night, Stevens said, "Just his desire to be better.” Then he wondered out loud if missing that first practice might have been a blessing in disguise for Williams.

    "Missing the first practice probably was a good thing now, in retrospect,” said Stevens. "Because I think that it even locked him in more so. I think his work ethic has been awesome. His spirit is great. He and Barlow have a fun relationship. 

    "I’m really glad he’s here. I think he’s got a high upside.”

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    WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

    WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

    Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

    Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

    Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

    Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

    Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

    Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

    "You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

    Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

    Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

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    NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

    NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

    We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

    We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

    Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

    Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

    But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

    With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

    At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

    Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

    The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

    Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

    On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

    Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

    Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

    Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

    But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

    Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

    Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

    The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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