Robert Williams is back and more dangerous than ever for surging Celtics

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Forsberg: The Robert Williams Effect is lifting Celtics to new heights originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics built the best record in basketball behind a historically-paced offense while Robert Williams III was rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, and yet they’ve become even more enjoyable to watch since his return.

Call it the Time Lord Effect. Williams III is unlike any other player on the Celtics roster -- or the NBA as a whole, really. He infuses an undeniable energy every second he’s on the court and his impact goes far beyond his loud alley-oop finishes and volleyball blocks.

Williams III treats the basketball like a ticking time bomb and is so eager to get rid of it that he sometimes unintentionally cranks the pace on the floor. Even his missteps are hilariously enjoyable. Earlier this week he pelted Jayson Tatum in the face with the ball while eager to get moving in transition. On Thursday, he committed a backcourt violation while rushing to feed Tatum in a low-clock situation.

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But his mere presence causes everyone’s antennae to go skyward. Opponents think twice about attacking the basket, teammates are more willing to just throw the ball at the rim and let him work his gravity-defying magic, and fans are doubly engaged at the possibility of what he might do next.

The big question at the moment is whether the Celtics will eventually shuffle Williams III back with the core starters. That lineup was an absolute wrecking ball last season, particularly on the defensive end. And yet it’s played only 8 minutes in three games this season with less-than-stellar returns.

That group did have a nice little 9-0 burst against the Clippers but soon was just trading baskets. The defense with that group hasn’t dialed it the way it did a season ago.

The luxury these Celtics have is that their preferred small-ball starting lineup in Williams III’s absence has been so good that there’s no need to force last year’s starting lineup. Williams III can shake rust and get reacclimatized with that group in late-half run as the team ponders the benefits of the double-big look.

That Boston can stagger Williams III and Al Horford to eat up much of the center minutes is also a benefit of bringing Time Lord off the bench.

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Among the 24 high-volume, five-man lineups in the NBA this season (greater than 150 minutes played), Boston’s starting group with Derrick White and the core ranks third with a net rating of +17. Only the starting fives for Golden State (+23) and Denver (+19.8) are better, and then there’s a pronounced drop to Milwaukee’s starting group at +13.7.

When that group starts halves sluggish, like the third quarter on Thursday against the Clippers, it’s easy to pine for last year’s look (especially when Los Angeles was taking advantage of Boston’s lack of size). But being able to roll Williams III into the game as a human Five Hour Energy Drink is a luxury, too.

And, for his part, Williams III is saying all the right things about his role.

"I feel like I'm trying to win, you know what I'm saying?” said Williams III. "If [starting] happens, it happens. But we winners over here. We pride ourselves on putting team first, you know what I'm saying? I can impact off the bench, starting. I like being able to see where I need to add the energy coming off of the bench. But, like I said, it's in the air, I'm gonna rock with these guys regardless.”

Williams III can analyze what the game needs and then make it a priority when he hits the floor. It’s also nice for a Celtics team that struggled with consistent bench play last season to be able to throw in a guy who's capable of putting up a double-double in 21 minutes (like Williams III did Tuesday versus Houston).

"Being able to watch the game, not starting, you can kind of break the game up a little bit, see where the energy is needed,” said Williams III. "You know, I feel like [Clippers center Ivica] Zubac got his hand on every rebound [Thursday], so when I’m sitting on the bench, we just needed more energy. Nine times out of 10, the person boxing out the big man is the person that's getting the ball, so just trying to get in there and get a lot of tip outs."

Rebounding, pace, defense -- they're just part of what Williams III brings to the floor. And here are the numbers that prove it:

36.6

That’s Boston’s offensive rebound rate with Williams III on the floor this season.

It’s a staggering 12 percent higher than the team's season average. Boston’s total rebound rate pops to a team-best 57.3 percent, or 7.5 percent above the team’s season average, with Williams III on the court. Both marks would easily lead the league if maintained over the course of the season.

Williams III's superpower isn’t just using his size and leaping ability to get rebounds, it’s keeping plays alive. Or, to be more specific, keeping plays alive and creating scoring opportunities. Like the other night against Houston when he no-look tipped an offensive rebound directly to Marcus Smart for a 3-pointer.

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The Celtics were on a historic offensive pace even while lingering near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounds. Now, Williams III has supercharged that area during his floor time and is helping stabilize Boston’s offense even as the team isn't shooting at quite the same clip as it was to start the season.

105.4

That is Boston’s pace with Williams III on the court this season.

For the season, Boston ranks middle of the pack (14th) with a pace of 100.2. The Warriors top the NBA at 103.1. And despite being the best half-court offenses in the NBA, the Celtics still have a maddening propensity to go cold when they don’t keep their finger on the turbo button.

It’s worth noting, too, that since December 1, Boston sits 24th in the NBA in half-court efficiency, particularly as their role players go cold from beyond the 3-point arc.

Williams III’s hot potato style ensures that defensive rebounds turn into immediate transition chances. Once he gives up the ball, he’s sprinting down the floor as a lob threat, or setting a screen to get Boston into quicker actions.

The Celtics cannot take their foot off the gas and expect to sustain offensively. That happened at the end of the Clippers game and Boston had to lean heavy on its defense to get to the finish line. Williams III ensures the pace stays cranked during his floor time.

34.4 percent

That’s what opponents are shooting when Williams III is the primary defender this season.

It’s also a ridiculous 9.9 percent below those players’ expected field goal percentage. Opponents have made only 22 of 64 attempts against Williams III since his return. They are 8 for 31 (25.8 percent) on all 3-pointers and 14 of 33 on all 2-point attempts (42.4 percent). The most notable number: Opponents have made just 7 of 15 attempts inside of 6 feet when defended by Williams III, which is 13.4 percent below expected.

Williams III doesn’t just make it tough for opponents to shoot around the basket, he deters them from even thinking about it. Teams are shooting less near the basket because Williams III might be lingering. Sometimes he’s not even the primary defender and he still flies in to create chaos, as Zubac and Co. found out on Thursday.

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The Celtics will go as far as Tatum and Jaylen Brown can lead them, but the superstars' load is lightened when high-level role players make everything easier. Williams III makes good things happen with his energy alone and the Celtics simply cannot replicate his impact when he’s not out there.

If Boston is to reach its peak potential and capture its ultimate goal, Williams III will be at the center of it all.