We could spend the next 1,000 words on Jayson Tatum’s final shot and why it was a bad look. Alas, Tatum owned his ill-advised decision to pull up from deep in the final seconds of the Boston Celtics' loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday and let’s just call it a teachable moment for a team that, as a whole, needs to generate a better last-chance look.
From this vantage point, the bigger storyline from Sunday’s game was Robert Williams.
We’re not trying to go all sunshine and puppy dogs on you here. Through three games, the Celtics rank 26th in the NBA in defensive rating at 116.9. Boston's transition defense has been utterly putrid in spurts this season. The Celtics were impossibly bad at the start of the third quarter Sunday against a team that was on the second night of a back-to-back. Boston let a winnable game slip away because of it.
But Tatum’s shot selection and the Celtics’ defensive effort shouldn’t be long-term concerns. What could potentially alter the trajectory of the 2020-21 season and beyond, however, is Williams bottling up his positive play and being someone who Celtics coach Brad Stevens can comfortably lean on in crunch-time situations.
"I just thought Rob was our best big tonight,” said Stevens. "I thought that was pretty clear, right? He played with great energy, he played super hard, did everything well.”
We’re feeling a little woozy on Robert Williams Island right now. You’ve probably heard this reporter scream on our programming about Time Lord’s potential and how him maximizing his talents is critical for this team.
So, we’ll throw up some caution flags here. We’ve seen plenty of glimpses from Williams over the past two seasons and he’s rarely been able to build off them. Health has intervened — it’s not great that he already missed a game this season due to illness — but Sunday night offered a road map to maximizing his talents and it’s pretty simple: effort.
When Williams plays hard and lets his natural talents take over, good things happen. When he starts overthinking, particularly on the defensive end, things go poorly, and Stevens has been quick with a hook.
Forget his uber-efficient scoring Sunday with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting. What jumps out from Williams’ stat line is four steals, including two in the final quarter. His first swipe of the night saw him lunge on the floor with shades of Marcus Smart to create a transition opportunity for Semi Ojeleye. With four minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Williams intercepted a pass in the backcourt and threw down a two-handed slam to tie the game.
That effort encouraged Stevens to keep Williams on the court throughout crunch time. He was rewarded with 18.2 seconds to play when, after using his length to pester Indiana’s inbound pass, Williams pounced on a trapped T.J. Warren and force a turnover that led to a Smart go-ahead layup with 11.8 seconds to go.
"Rob has really come a long way and has worked so hard and he's going to be a big part of our success this season,” said Tatum.
OK, now the bad. On Indiana’s ensuing possession, both Rob and Grant Williams had a miscommunication that allowed Domantas Sabonis to drive the left side for an and-one layup that helped Indiana sneak out with the win.
"I feel like, at the end of the day, we didn’t stop them when we were supposed to. We messed up the defensive coverage. So really all the other stuff out the window,” fretted Robert Williams.
Asked about his defensive progress this season, Rob Williams added, “I feel like I’m definitely coming along, making progress. But, like I said, I’m not coming along fast enough, slipping up like this. So next game just try to minimize the slip-ups.”
Jaylen Brown picked up his teammate and even suggested that the late-game miscue wasn’t all on Time Lord.
"He’s extremely important, and he does a really good job. He’s always usually in the right spot,” said Brown. "I think that last play was tough. I don’t think that was all necessarily his fault. We’ve got to communicate better and give a better effort. Obviously, Sabonis when he gets it going to his left hand is really hard. He got one on us, so learn from it and we’ve got to move forward.”
Having a decent backup big man is important if the Celtics are going to lean on two-big lineups like they have out of the gates this season by trotting out Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson together on the starting unit.
But Rob Williams emerging as a consistent rotation-caliber big would be an important development regardless of lineups. It might offer the Celtics some flexibility when exploring trades later in the year — remember, Theis is going to be a free agent after the year and his escalating price tag could be cumbersome for a team that’s particularly top heavy with Tatum and Brown’s recent extensions.
There is no denying what Rob Williams can be. The question is can he play to that level consistently and be available when it matters most.
His passing skills can aid Tatum/Brown lineups and his rim-running style is ideal for a team that wants to create space for their wings to operate. It’s all about Rob Williams finding that defensive consistency.
Whether it was solely his fault or not, the late-game defensive hiccup takes away from all the good he did. But Rob Williams has to build off those positive moments. He has to show that he can be an impact player with consistent playing time.
Maybe that ultimately just makes him a trade asset if the Celtics see the bulk of their center minutes going to Theis and Thompson, with Grant Williams as a small-ball backup. Even that’s not the worst development for a team thin on tradable young assets.
But the best path forward for this Celtics team is for Rob Williams to be at the center of a young core, to be one of the team’s top-7 players who can play big minutes in a playoff series.
Sunday was a reminder that it could be as simple as bringing energy and playing with discipline. It’s time for Time Lord to capitalize on his opportunity.