Robert Williams again proves why he's an energy-shifter for Celtics

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Forsberg: Robert Williams is leading another Celtics energy shift originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Call it a rookie mistake, but poor Malaki Branham probably should have known better.

The Spurs' 19-year-old forward caught the ball with what he thought was enough space to launch a first-half 3-pointer during Boston's visit to San Antonio on Saturday. Alas, space has a way of disappearing when Robert Williams III is lingering nearby.

Launching from a step beyond the free-throw line, Williams III went full Superman and swallowed Branham’s 3-point attempt. Williams III then won a foot race to the ball near midcourt and, with one dribble, elevated for a layup.

“I’m really surprised he shot the ball,” said Williams III. “Most people know I’m coming to block that. He won’t try it again, for sure."

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You have to love the honesty. The sequence was mesmerizing and was just one of a handful of plays that infused much-needed energy as the Celtics stiff-armed a young Spurs squad.

Williams III noted how the Boston bench gave him some grief for not dunking the ball to add some sizzle to that highlight sequence. Alas, he said, his knee buckled a bit trying to time his steps, so he settled for the layup.

The Celtics needed Williams III’s spark on Saturday night and they need it even more moving forward. Boston, for all its early season success, has had a lot of flat moments lately and Williams III has provided a caffeine jolt during his nine appearances since returning from offseason knee surgery.

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Interim coach Joe Mazzulla initially diminished talk of a minutes restriction with Williams III, but in Mazzulla’s absence due to an eye injury, assistant Damon Stouadmire admitted the team is treading cautiously with Williams III.

That’s not exactly a state secret. Williams hasn’t played more than 22 minutes in a game this season and his average floor time is a shade under 20 minutes per night. He also sat out a game in Oklahoma City this week to limit the overall wear and tear.

The Celtics have three months to properly ramp Williams III up. He played 29.6 minutes per game during 61 regular-season appearances last season and then logged 23.2 minutes per game in the playoffs while coming back from an initial procedure following a torn meniscus.

Williams III is making the most of his limited court time this season. He’s shooting 83.8 percent overall and has blocked twice as many shots (12) as he’s missed (six) this season. He had his first miss in five games on Saturday. Williams III is averaging 7.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.2 assists, and 0.6 steals per game, which make for some very glossy per-36 numbers.

The team’s quest to keep him upright will prevent any such stat explosion. But even in small doses, Williams III cranks the intensity of Boston’s play at both ends of the court.

Saturday’s game showcased the full toolbox. Early on, Williams III corralled an offensive rebound and, in one smooth motion, zipped the ball to Malcolm Brogdon for a 3-pointer. Williams III has made the rebound-assist a familiar weapon this season.

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Along the way, Williams III had a loud putback slam. He delivered a sweet sidearm feed to a cutting Jayson Tatum for a dunk. Williams III swatted a few more shots, including a chasedown in transition. He picked up three steals. And he capped his night with a late alley-oop slam from Tatum while playing in crunch time.

Just call him Crunch Time Lord.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Williams III and whether he might elevate back to the starting lineup. Boston’s most common starting group, with Derrick White in place of Williams III, has been a beast. But a lack of third-quarter energy has made the idea of shuffling Williams III alongside Boston’s core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart a bit more intriguing.

For his part, Williams III keeps saying all the right things. He’s gushed about how coming off the bench has allowed him to identify where he can infuse energy. Williams III hasn’t pushed the issue about starting but simply admitted that he's ready if needed for a bigger role.

Watching the Celtics sweat out a win in San Antonio as Romeo Langford and Josh Richardson tried to get revenge for the shorthanded Spurs was a reminder of Williams III’s importance. The Celtics don’t win that game without his varied exploits.

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For the season, the Celtics own a net rating of +10.8 during Williams III’s 175 minutes of floor time. That’s the second best mark on the team behind only White, whose +11.1 ranks second only to Nikola Jokic in the entire NBA among high-volume players.

Opponents are shooting a mere 38.1 percent overall against Williams III this season. That’s 8.5 percent below expected output. And the closer you get to the basket, the more impactful Williams III becomes, most notably with opponents shooting 12.9 percent below expected output from less than six feet.

Last week we dubbed it the Robert Williams Effect. The Celtics are just different with him and it remains so obvious that, in order for this team to reach its full potential and its ultimate goal, so much of what it accomplishes will be tied to Williams III.

Opponents act differently when Williams III is patrolling on defense. The Celtics give up fewer points around the basket and opposing players don’t even bother attempting shots near the rim unless they know Williams III isn’t nearby.

Because, unlike poor Branham, the word is out on how Williams III can impact the game. He’ll someday be a Defensive Player of the Year. If he can stay healthy and play bigger minutes, it doesn’t seem preposterous to suggest he may eventually enter the All-Star conversation.

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That's all while Williams III is on an insanely team-friendly, long-term deal after Brad Stevens locked him up last season. Former NBA center Kendrick Perkins wondered out loud Saturday if Williams III is a top-five center in the league. That might seem like hyperbole in a league where Jokic is gunning for a third MVP and Joel Embiid headlines the big men in the Eastern Conference, but it’s hard to find more centers whom you’d pick before a healthy Williams III.

Because few big men have the total impact that Williams III does. And even in diminished minutes he’s leaving his stamp on the game. Just ask Branham.