Celtics

Opportunity is there and Robert Williams is ready to work for it

Opportunity is there and Robert Williams is ready to work for it

BOSTON — The sweat was still pouring off Robert Williams’ head as he greeted a reporter after Celtics’ summer league practice on Tuesday. The team’s media relations staff had plucked Williams out of the weight room for a quick chat and it was obvious he had been working up a big sweat on what was supposedly a light day for the summer team.

A day earlier, Williams had told reporters about how coach Brad Stevens had given him some inspirational words that essentially screamed: Hey, look at our frontcourt depth chart right now, there’s an opportunity here for anyone who wants it.

But we wanted to know more about what exactly Stevens had stressed to Williams and what he was doing with the message.

"Hard work and effort, obviously,” said Williams, dabbing at the sweat on his face with his practice jersey. “Just recognizing that I’m not looked at as a 21-year-old. It’s about picking stuff up, learning how to play with guys, learning how to be comfortable, more than anything. And putting in the work.”

While Williams talked, the Celtics were putting the finishing touches on a slew of signings to fill up a previously barren frontcourt. It started with getting veteran Enes Kanter to agree to a two-year, $10 million pact Monday utilizing the midlevel exception. Daniel Theis, a restricted free agent, agreed to a deal with virtually the same terms. Boston also imported French 7-footer Daniel Poirier on a minimum salary deal, adding to a diverse-yet-largely-unseasoned collection of bigs.

Kanter, Williams, Theis, and Poirier will compete for frontcourt minutes with Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, and rookie Grant Williams. (And before you scream: What about Tacko Fall?! Let’s wait until after summer league to project whether he can make an NBA roster, though the 7-foot-6 big man is undeniably fascinating to watch).

Kanter, with eight years experience and coming off a solid postseason showing in Portland, would seemingly project as the team’s starting center. Still, the Celtics are going to give Williams every opportunity to wrestle away minutes. Kanter is hired help as the team tries to plug holes and remaining competitive after the departures of Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris. But Boston’s most ideal path forward is finding a young impactful big who can develop alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Enter Timelord, whose initial NBA aloofness endeared him to Celtics fans but who is acutely aware of the opportunity now within in his grasp, should he be willing to fight for it.

“Definitely, I feel like I [have an opportunity to earn minutes],” said Williams. "Obviously, that’s what we’re here grinding for. The opportunity that Coach keeps saying is in front of me. So you gotta put in the work.”

Williams, the 27th pick in the 2018 draft, landed in headlines last year after oversleeping his post-draft conference call then missing a flight for the team’s first summer league practice. When he did get in games, he tantalized fans with his athleticism, throwing down alley-oop lobs and swatting shots six rows deep in the crowd.

Williams logged only 283 total minutes in 32 appearances. He got a spot start in Charlotte late in the season — not his finest night — and played sparingly down the stretch (though, in his other start in the regular-season finale, he put up two points, 11 rebounds, three blocks in 29 minutes while helping Boston rally for a win in Washington). 

What did Williams learn last season? That it’s a long year. That opportunities are going to arise. He seems to acknowledge now that he wasn’t always ready for them. He might be now and he’s trying to prove it to the coaching staff. Williams wants to show he’s ready to be on the court for long stretches.

“You want to improve on everything but I’ve been working on my conditioning, every day,” said Williams. "I feel like that’s a big factor for me. A lot of my moves are explosive, defensively and offensively. I feel like I have to get the conditioning part under me.”

Asked Monday how hungry he was to prove himself at summer league, Williams answered, “Starving.” Now he has to prove it. Some health woes limited him to only two minutes of court time at summer league this year. This year's trip to Vegas is the perfect opportunity for Williams to show that he deserves time.

The summer coaching staff has reminded him that he’s a “veteran” on this group, one of only two Celtics players (Yabusele the other) returning for summer action. And early signs have been encouraging.

"I’ve been real happy with [Williams],” said assistant coach Scott Morrison. "He’s showed some toughness, showed some leadership, being one of only the only two returning Celtics players that we have on the roster here. Hopefully, he hangs in there and can really show well for himself in Vegas.”

Stevens is going to have all sorts of options in the frontcourt this season. Who plays might ultimately hinge on who shows they want it more and who best impacts winning.

Williams has all the talent to earn big minutes. But he’s gotta put in the work. He certainly seems willing. As soon as the brief interview ended, before the sweat on his brow had even dried, he jogged across the gymnasium and right back into the weight room to complete his workout.

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Celtics-Suns Takeaways: Smart was great. Rest of the Celtics? Not so much

Celtics-Suns Takeaways: Smart was great. Rest of the Celtics? Not so much

BOSTON -- Trailing 98-88 in the fourth quarter, Boston’s Jayson Tatum had the ball in hand, with a potential 1-on-1 opportunity to score at the rim. 

Before he got there, he had one last inside-out, dribble-drive move to make. He made it, but the ball took an unexpected hop, hit his shin and rolled out of bounds. 

It was that kind of night for the Boston Celtics whose struggles continue with Saturday’s 123-119 loss, their sixth in the last nine games. 

There are many avenues to take that’ll lead you to why the Celtics (27-14) lost this one, for sure. But this loss, like most of the others, comes down to defense; specifically, the Celtics not playing very well at that end of the floor. 

And it isn’t just the perimeter players or the team’s bigs. It’s the entire squad, delivering about as much force as a feather all the while getting picked apart from the opening tip to the final horn. 

As we’ve seen so many times with the Celtics, they made a frantic rally in the closing minutes as Phoenix’s comfortable double-digit lead was down to just seven points (114-107) with 1:16 to play.

A pair of free throws and a dunk by Daniel Theis brought Boston within 114-111, only for a short fadeaway jumper in the lane from Mikal Bridges hung on the lip of the rim before falling. That increased the Suns' lead to 116-111 with 36.9 seconds to play. 

Coming out of a Celtics timeout, they called a lob pass to Gordon Hayward, who caught it cleanly and took an uncontested lay-up that rimmed out. A chorus of boos rang out immediately. 

It was a fitting last-second play for the Celtics. Once again, they did a lot of things that looked good and should have worked. But ultimately, they came up short yet again. 

‘D’ IN DEVIN BOOKER STANDS FOR DOMINATE

Booker puts up a ton of points, but the Celtics continue to be the one team he loves to torch more than others. And what we saw for most of Saturday night was consistent with what we usually see from Booker when he’s playing against Boston. 

Saturday was another big night for Booker in Boston. He led the Suns with a near triple-double of 39 points,10 rebounds and nine assists. 

Boston used a slew of different defenders at him but it didn’t matter. Booker is that good and the Celtics defense lately … isn’t. 

WALKER’S ABSENCE PAINFULLY OBVIOUS

Marcus Smart did his best Kemba Walker impression, making a slew of 3’s — and mostly doing so in a very efficient manner 

But in the end, as the Celtics failed to make the necessary plays at either end of the floor, Walker’s absence was painfully obvious.

As impressive as Boston’s knack for players stepping up to fill the void might be when missing one of their stars, there's a cumulative effect that, over time, will make going that route a losing proposition. 

The Celtics need their core guys healthy, ready to go. And when you look at their schedule, a taxing January schedule, and the fact that they have been able to survive way more than they should with this “next man up” brand of basketball, it shouldn’t come as too big a shock that they are coming up short when one of their best players (like Walker) isn’t available. 

MARCUS SMART DOING SMART-LIKE THINGS ALL GAME

It was very much a bittersweet time for Marcus Smart. He was giving the Celtics what the franchise and the fans have been clamoring for — a consistent 3-point shot. 

Smart was having the best game of his life shooting the ball against the Suns. He finished with a career-high 37 points scored, including a career-high 11 made 3’s. He also had eight assists and five rebounds. 

There are going to be very few nights when Smart plays this well, this locked in offensively. 

Even after many fans had headed to the exit, there was Smart, engaged, encouraging as ever, trying to will this team to a victory that they had no business getting.  It was the kind of leadership and big-game play that we’ve come to expect from him. 

And as impressive as it was, the end result was a Celtics loss. This one can be blamed on many factors and many players … but Smart ain’t one of them. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

NBA Highlights: Career night for Smart, but Celtics lose third straight, 123-119, to Suns

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USA TODAY Sports Images

NBA Highlights: Career night for Smart, but Celtics lose third straight, 123-119, to Suns

FINAL SCORE: Suns 123, Celtics 119

IN BRIEF: Without Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown in the lineup, the Celtics played from behind (for most of the night). Marcus Smart carried the offense, finishing with career high’s in points (37) and a franchise record for three-pointers made in a game (11 for 22), thanks to a torrid first half that saw him complete 6 of 10 three-pointers. 

Smart's outlet to Daniel Theis for a breakaway slam with a minute left cut the Suns' lead to three. Jayson Tatum's three with 4 seconds left cut it to 121-119, but Devin Booker made both his free throws at the other end to seal it.

BOX SCORE

CELTICS RECORD: 27-14 (3rd in Eastern Conference)

HIGHLIGHTS

SIX FIRST-HALF 3’S FOR SMART

ANOTHER STOP SIGN?

THEIS DROPS THE HAMMER

HAYWARD TO KANTER

UP NEXT:

Vs. LA Lakers, Monday, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.