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Playing through pain, Celtics center Robert Williams erases Warriors’ chances in Game 3

BOSTON – Celtics center Robert Williams briefly let slip what he’d been trying to avoid admitting: He’s taking a “risk.”

Williams rushed back from knee surgery underwent in late March. Even after returning during Boston’s first-round win over the Nets, he has missed five playoff games. For weeks, the Celtics have known his problems wouldn’t dissipate this season. Every game is an exercise in body preparation and pain management.

But the scarier thought Williams refuses to discuss: Playing through this injury could affect the rest of his career.

Yet, Boston is in the NBA Finals. If preserving his health, wouldn’t it be for moments like this?

Williams acknowledges the pain: “It’s been rough.” But…

“It’s worth it, for sure,” Williams said.

Certainly on a night like tonight.

In the Celtics’ Game 3 win Wednesday, Williams led Boston with four blocks, three steals and seven defensive rebounds – sterling numbers that only begin to show how much he stymied the Warriors. He was a game-high +21 despite playing just 26 minutes.

The Celtics’ defensive rating with:

  • Williams on: 100.0
  • Williams off: 113.0

That’s especially impressive because Williams played more than two-thirds of his minutes with Golden State star Stephen Curry on the floor. (Boston’s defensive rating with Williams and Curry on: 84.8.)

“He can kind of come out of nowhere,” said Curry, who had two passes stolen* and a shot blocked by Williams.

*Williams’ third steal also came on a Curry pass, but that was after the ball bounced off Draymond Green’s legs. Though Williams showed range in scooping up the loose ball, that wasn’t really Williams imposing his will on Curry.

Curry brought up the block. He drove by Grant Williams, but had his floater rejected by Robert Williams:

“Thought I had daylight to get a shot up,” Curry said, “and you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could bother that shot.

“You have to be aware of where he is, because that’s what he does for them on that end of the floor.”

The Warriors offer a particularly stiff challenge to a hobbled Williams with their movement and shooting. At one point, Williams said Celtics coach Ime Udoka snapped at him “Get up” – as in go higher on the floor to defend a shooter.

“I told him, ‘I thought I was up!’” Williams said.

A rookie head coach, Udoka has impressed with his ability to hold his players accountable. He also previously coached for years with the Spurs, who famously sat Tim Duncan for the 2000 playoffs rather than push him through a knee injury. So, Udoka is familiar with those types of tough decisions.

Udoka has a view on how he wants to operate and the confidence to execute it. Among his tenets: He’d rather stick with his top players – even with Williams limited – and change the scheme than change his lineup.

“This is the core group going forward,” Udoka said. “And to have the confidence to be able to figure it out with him is going to be big going forward.”

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown rightfully draw the most attention as Boston’s core. The Celtics’ longest-tenured player, Marcus Smart has endeared himself, too.

But Williams – who has the security of a four-year, $48 million-$54 million contract extension signed last summer – has emerged a central figure. After showing immaturity early in his career, the fourth-year player has developed into a reliable “game-changer” (Al Horford’s word for Williams).

Williams is arguably Boston’s top defender. And this is a team with the Defensive Player of the Year and no weak links in its starting lineup. At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, Williams swarms all over the court obliterating opponents’ opportunities.

At least when healthy enough.

Williams said having two days off between Games 2 and 3 helped. There’s only one day off between Games 3 and 4.

“Usually it’s more sore the day after the game,” Williams said. “Obviously, adrenaline going down.”

Wednesday was a heck of an adrenaline rush. In front of a raucous home crowd on the biggest stage, Williams spurred his team to victory.

Another test will come Thursday. Then with Game 4 Friday. Then, again the day after and the day after and…

But whatever it means for his future, however much it hurts in the moment, Williams is committed to pushing for the ultimate adrenaline rush – celebrating a championship.