BOSTON — From the end of the Boston bench, a suit-coat clad Aron Baynes swung his arm vigorously in celebration. Next to him, a blazer-wearing Al Horford did a double fist pump. Soon, Kyrie Irving rose to his feet and applauded the sequence in front of him.
Robert Williams had just swatted New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis for the second time in Monday’s game, the Celtics rookie somehow leaping high enough early in the fourth quarter to smother Davis’ fadeaway attempt almost the instant it left his hand.
Most nights it’s Williams on the bench, oozing his palpable joy as the Celtics regulars compete. But, on a night in which half of Boston’s regulars were sidelined, it was the veterans who reveled in the best game of the rookie’s young career.
"There’s not too many guys in the league that can block Anthony Davis’ shot,” said Marcus Morris. That alone is special. And he showed that a few times.
“He’s a young guy and, once he really learns and once he really gets out there and has time to play, he’s going to be a beast.”
With Boston’s frontcourt decimated by injuries, with Horford (knee), Baynes (ankle), and Guerschon Yabusele (ankle) all sidelined for the visit from the Pelicans, the Celtics ran Williams for 26 minutes — or just a few minutes less than he had played through the first nine games of his NBA career.
The extremely active rookie responded with 7 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks in Boston’s 113-100 triumph at TD Garden. And it was the two rejections of Davis, bookending Williams’ night, that left everyone in the building buzzing about his potential.
“[Williams is] good. He’s talented. A good defensive player,” Davis said after scoring a game-high 41 points but on 34 shots. "He got another [block] at the other end late in the second half. I just tried to change it up a little bit but I was surprised he got the first one.”
A minute after Williams checked in late in the first quarter, Davis caught the ball on the blocks. With a left-handed dribble into the paint, Davis tried to get the rookie off his feet but Williams stayed planted. Davis then rose, looking for a little left-handed hook but Williams leaped to contest and managed to swat the shot the other way off his fingertips.
Before the game, Williams, a Louisiana native, had showered Davis with praise. But also noted, “He’s my opponent. . … I’m just focusing on playing defense the way the coaches want us to play defense.”
Williams, who has embraced the nickname of Time Lord bestowed upon him by Boston’s ravenous Twitter fan base after a couple of tardiness issues at the start of his Celtics tenure, has earned heavy hype despite a limited role. His raw athleticism — unlike anything these often low-to-the-ground Celtics have seen in recent seasons — and his loud alley-oop finishes quickly endured him to fans.
Williams is averaging a robust 1.25 points per play, according to Synergy Sports offensive data, feasting on dunks and putbacks while only straying from the basket to set screens. Synergy defensive data has Williams allowing a mere 0.70 points per play, albeit on a minuscule sample (30 possessions defended). Still, Synergy data suggests opponents are shooting a mere 26.1 percent against him, a crazy number even for someone feasting on trash-time reps, particularly when you consider how often he was matched up with Davis on Monday.
As much as Williams' blocks will dominate the highlight reel, Davis did have his moments against the rookie. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens deadpanned after the game, “Well, he held him to 41.” But Stevens was just as quick to praise Williams for his relentless energy and effort.
"I thought Robert did a lot of good things,” said Stevens. “When you’re shooting jumpers and Robert’s in the vicinity, you feel him. When you’re shooting around the rim and he’s in the vicinity, you feel him. And I think he can improve a lot but I thought he did a really good job.”
Stevens has shown unwavering faith in the rookie, even after his transgressions like a missed flight that left him absent for the team’s first summer league practice. Williams has atoned with a fierce work ethic — and an apartment next to the team’s sparkling new practice facility. Williams is eager to please and Celtics executives wonder if the bumps in the road after draft day ultimately put Williams on a path to succeed.
If nothing else, Williams’ personality is lighting up the Celtics’ locker room. Veterans have put him in charge of the music. And Williams never seems to stop smiling. He has a propensity to curse and is the first to poke fun at himself.
Like before Monday's game when a reporter offered congratulations on the recent birth of his daughter. Williams deadpanned, "She looks just like me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”
One thing is for certain, the Celtics liked the way Williams looked on Monday.
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