The news that Robert Williams has a torn meniscus and will be sidelined indefinitely hit like a gut punch just hours after the Boston Celtics ascended to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
A team absolutely drunk on positive vibes got hit with a sobering slap and a harsh reminder of the health woes that have too often invaded in and around playoff time for this franchise.
Even as Boston surged over the past 10 weeks, the team did so in large part due to the good health that evaded it at the start of the year. Things always felt a bit fragile because of how important each of the pieces was to the puzzle.
There’s a case to be made that, beyond Jayson Tatum, no player was more invaluable than Williams. That shouldn’t diminish what Jaylen Brown is doing or how Marcus Smart has flourished in the point guard role. But the Celtics’ defense went from good to "Wait, are they playing with seven guys on the court?" amazing with Williams in the rover role throughout calendar year 2022.
We’d like to tell you the numbers offer some sort of comfort. They don’t, although we're working with a small sample size because of how available Williams had been this season.
The Celtics’ starting five, of course, had been an absolute juggernaut this season, owning a plus-24.6 net rating in 443 minutes together. Take away any of those pieces and the numbers dive in a hurry.
The Tatum-Brown-Smart-Horford quartet has played only 125 minutes together this season without Williams. That group owns a minus-8.2 net rating, with Boston’s defensive rating spiking from 97.0 with the entire quintet to 114.9 without him.
Narrow the focus to all Tatum-Brown-Smart minutes without Williams and it doesn’t get much better. That trio has a minus-9.1 net rating over 170 minutes. Again, not a huge sample, but enough to stress that this team can expect a drop-off without one of its infinity stones.
You can’t help but feel for Williams, who had done so much to diminish the injury perception from earlier in his career. The Celtics took great measures to try to preserve his body and it still balked at the worst possible time.
Williams should be cementing his case for an All-Defense spot over the next couple weeks. Instead, he’ll be forced to watch his team try to maintain its success without him.
The Celtics are fortunate to have Daniel Theis right now after adding the veteran big at the trade deadline. Boston will now have to lean even heavier on 35-year-old Al Horford to hold down the back line and Theis is a decent luxury to fill big-man minutes.
But replacing Time Lord isn’t an easy task.
The Celtics can consider moving Grant Williams onto the first unit alongside Al Horford. That group has played only 50 minutes together but has shown some offensive potential. Alas, it’s still a minus-4.6 net rating in a small sample.
So much of the burden to carry the Celtics forward now falls to Tatum and Brown. The only bit of positivity we can leave you with is that that duo is no stranger to soldiering on when limb injuries have taken a superstar away.
Can Tatum and Brown carry the team deep into the playoffs like they did without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward? The task just got a lot more difficult. The Celtics haven’t been challenged much the past three months, but now they must show they can respond after getting hit in the stomach.