Have Celtics found the right formula for Robert Williams after Game 3 win?

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Forsberg: Have Celtics found the right formula for Robert Williams? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON -- Nothing about what we’d previously seen from Robert Williams III in the NBA Finals should have given Steph Curry cause for concern as he casually lofted a floater over him early in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s Game 3 at TD Garden.

Williams III hadn't had the same speed, the same explosion that made him a key ingredient as Boston emerged as the NBA’s best defense this season. Scrambling over from the opposite blocks to contest the Curry drive, Williams III launched into a more familiar orbit and swatted the offering so hard it left Scott Foster going full Matrix to avoid getting drilled in the dome 30 feet away.

"I got by Grant Williams and thought I had daylight to get a shot up,” said Curry. “And you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could bother that shot.”

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On a night filled with positives, especially Boston’s physical response from the Warriors’ Game 2 butt-whooping, the most encouraging sign was how Time Lord turned back the clocks.

Looking spry again and playing with more familiar bounce, Williams III chipped in 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 steals over nearly 26 minutes of action in Boston’s 116-100 triumph to take a 2-1 series lead.

After the Warriors put their typical third-quarter squeeze on the Celtics, Williams III logged nearly 10 minutes of fourth-quarter floor time and helped Boston salt away a win.

Williams III hadn't been the same player for much of the past two rounds. A surgically repaired left knee, compounded by a bone bruise suffered against the Bucks, hadn't allowed him to race out to shooters or showcase his usual bounce around the basket. But the Celtics tweaked his routine Wednesday -- both in warming him up before the game, and his minute pattern during floor time -- and got encouraging results.

"It's been rough. Throwing everything at it," said Williams III. "Usually it's more sore the day after the game -- obviously, adrenaline going down. But we did some different things today, got on the bike a little bit earlier before the game. I benefited from it.”

Robert Williams battles through pain to deliver as Game 3 X-factor

Even without Williams III at full health, it’s felt like the Celtics have been trying to extract whatever he can give them the past two rounds. Or as Marcus Smart put it, "If you can go, we'll take 20 percent of you better than none of you. He understood that, and he decided to go out there and put his big-boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy."

The Defensive Player of the Year knows how impactful Williams III can be at even something less than 100 percent.

"That's why our defense is where it's at, because the ability that he has to cover that paint and protect it," said Smart. "Like I said, he's been doing it all year. He's just continuing to get better with each and every game. He allows us to be better on the defensive end because of his ability to protect the paint for us ...

"I'm constantly talking to Rob, just for the simple fact I know what he's going through. He's hurting, and even though he's hurt he still wants to get out and help his team. But, at the same time, he's thinking about his career. Like I just told him, you know your body. You know what you can withstand and what you can't. But just know, we've got a chance to do something special. There's no guarantees that we'll be back here.”

Beset by injuries throughout his career, it was fair at times to wonder why Williams III hasn’t been able to grind through some maladies. But he’s routinely put the team ahead of his health this postseason.

Williams III came back from meniscus surgery in less than four weeks to jump into the first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. Just as he was shaking rust, Williams III suffered a bone bruise on the same knee trying to defend a Giannis Antetokounmpo drive in Round 2. He did not play in the final four games of that series before returning to help Boston during most of its seven-game triumph over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

Williams hasn’t been able to participate in much more than agility drills and light shooting on off days with the team attempting to limit the wear and tear on his knee. He’s downplayed the concerns about the long-term impact on his play, acknowledging the magnitude of the moment.

"Just trying to be accountable for my team. We made it this far," said Williams III. "Like I said, obviously I had a discussion with myself, by pushing through this. I'm happy with how it's going. We'll worry about the injury after the season, but for now I'm still fighting ...

"Knowing what I'm playing for, obviously. Taking the risk of playing and getting this far, I've obviously got more work to do, but it's worth it, for sure."

Williams III’s impact could be best quantified in Golden State’s lack of shots inside the 4 to 14 foot zone on Wednesday. The Warriors generated just six shots there and made only one, per NBA tracking. It’s notable because Golden State has generated 26.8 percent of its total playoff shots in the short midrange, which ranked sixth among all playoff teams, per Cleaning the Glass data. They had been shooting north of 50 percent on those shots before Wednesday’s game.

Williams is the ultimate deterrent. It’s one thing to attack the basket knowing he’s a step slow because of injury. Curry found out the hard way what it’s like when he’s feeling spry.

"Not only the shots that he did block -- I think he got four tonight -- but the ones he altered and his presence down there of course deters guys from driving," said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. "He was a big part of what we did. Staying big tonight, getting those 15 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points."

The lingering question is whether the Celtics can keep Williams III moving like he did in Game 3. Keeping him upright for a couple more weeks might just be the key to securing Banner 18.

Chris Forsberg on Williams' health going forward

The Celtics are simply different when Williams III is operating like he did on Wednesday night. You’ve got Smart hounding on the perimeter and Williams III cleaning up mistakes on the back line. It’s a reminder of why Williams III landed on the All-Defense second team and why even loftier awards could await down the road.

"Rob is an excellent defensive player. In my opinion, he could have won Defensive Player of the Year, as well, in that category with Smart, but he had some injuries that took him out of the running,” said Jaylen Brown. "Rob, when he's healthy and he's out there moving like him, he's one of the better defensive players in the league. No surprise tonight.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics can keep Williams III moving like he did in Game 3. Keeping him upright for a couple more weeks might just be the key to securing Banner 18.