Celtics welcome Robert Williams back from injury but fall short against Magic


BOSTON — The fans hopped to their feet to welcome back Robert Williams. The Celtics bench did the same. Hardly anybody remained seated as Williams, sidelined by a knee issue for Boston’s first 29 games, walked over to the scorer’s table to check in for his first minutes this season.

As the building roared for him, Williams tried to settle his emotions.

“Just calm down a little bit, man,” Williams thought to himself. “Don’t mess up. Find a way to help your teammates the best that you can.”

The message didn’t set in immediately. Despite his best intentions, Williams felt the game spinning around him during his first action since the NBA Finals. Before he could even touch the ball, he committed a turnover on an obvious moving screen. Eager to make an impact, Williams chased after the first available offensive rebound at 100 mph. As he grabbed the rim, looking for a put-back dunk, the ball bounced several feet away from him.

Then, about two minutes into the stint, Williams outran the Magic in transition and set up close to the hoop. Marcus Smart drew the closest defender away from Williams and threw a lob pass high into the air. Before Williams could even convert the alley-oop dunk, the Celtics bench jumped up to celebrate. As he slammed home the two points, the nerves began to fade.

“I think I just needed to catch a lob and dunk, to be honest,” Williams said later. “It was just like a sense of calm. I think after the first dunk it was kind of like, yeah, I can just breathe. You know what I’m saying? But everything followed after that.”

Everything followed but a win. The Celtics dropped Williams’ season debut to the Magic 117-109 in a frustrating game filled with bricked 3-pointers and untimely turnovers. Al Horford drew a third-quarter ejection for striking Magic big man Moritz Wagner below the belt. Jayson Tatum scored 31 points but went more than 14 minutes without a field goal to begin the second half. Jaylen Brown added 26 points on 7-for-17 shooting but committed seven turnovers, including multiple traveling violations. After opening with a flurry of offense, the Celtics fell behind by as many as 19 points thanks partly to an inability to contain the less reputable Wagner brother.

The night would have felt like a waste were it not for Williams’ promising minutes. In a development far more important than the Celtics’ third loss in four games, he showed off how he should enhance a team that has excelled even without him. Williams finished with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting (all dunks) with five rebounds, one block and one steal.

“I thought he picked up where I left off as far as his weakside defense,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I thought he did a good job with presence at the rim. And he just looked comfortable out there. So I was happy for him.”

Williams lifts the energy in a room. He changes the way the Celtics can play. At his best, he covers for his teammates and shuts off an opponent’s easiest points. He showed some rust Friday night but still managed to impact the Magic’s plans near the rim. Twice, when Mo Bamba tried to pick on Sam Hauser in the post, Williams rotated over from the weak side to help squash the idea. Williams blocked one of the shots:

He probably would have blocked the other but Bamba lost the ball before he could try the attempt.

The Celtics had the NBA’s best record during Williams’ 29-game absence but weren’t complete without him. They have missed his ability to swat shots, rack up steals and spark transition opportunities the other way. They have missed how Williams turns them up.

“From the standpoint of rim protection, I think he’ll give our guys confidence on just being able to guard the ball a little bit even more aggressively because they know they have help and size behind,” said Mazzulla. “Offensively, screening, vertical spacing.”

Even Friday, with Williams on the court, they weren’t yet operating at full strength. He looked to be moving well but didn’t have his normal timing. In just one sign of his rust, he picked up three fouls over his first four minutes on the court. The Celtics brought Williams off the bench and limited him to 17 minutes. He said he was “tired as hell” early in the game before finding his stride. Around him, the Celtics will need to relearn how to maximize lineups with two traditional big men after relying on smaller groups for most of the season. They will need to adapt to Williams’ strengths.

“It’s an adjustment offensively for sure,” said Malcolm Brogdon, “having someone that rolls hard and can catch it at the rim.”

With Williams, last season’s Celtics rode oversized, physical lineups to the top of the NBA’s defensive rankings. The team’s winning formula changed without him. Especially after the Brogdon acquisition, Boston leaned into the strength of its backcourt and perimeter players. Relying on smaller lineups with shooters everywhere, Boston entered Friday night with one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history. The team hopes Williams will do nothing to take away from the success on that end of the court while lifting the Celtics defense back into the land of the elite.

“I hope he doesn’t change us,” said Mazzulla. “I hope he just makes us better.”

Despite Mazzulla’s sentiment, Williams will change the Celtics. When he and Horford shared the frontcourt last season, the team engulfed opponents with size, intelligence and versatility. Mazzulla has hardly used Horford next to the team’s other centers but played him next to Williams during the first quarter Friday. The Celtics know how well that combination works but found other ways to win while Williams was sidelined.

“I didn’t love the fact that he was out,” said Mazzulla, “but what I did like was that we had the ability to create a different identity. And now that we have him back, I feel like it gives us different ways to play. So I’m really happy about that.”

Williams returned to five-on-five action in November. During one of his first live scrimmages, the team had him play four five-minute quarters. He fell to the ground at the end of the session, clearly exhausted. He needed to get his game legs back. Weeks later, he looked far more ready to handle his duties on the court. Before the game Friday, Mazzulla called Williams’ conditioning level “really good.” Mazzulla expressed excitement about how the big man’s body responded the day after workouts.

Williams said he felt good Friday. Then he corrected himself.

“Felt great, actually,” Williams said.

That’s how the Celtics felt seeing their beloved teammate back on the court. Late in the third quarter, Tatum spotted Williams racing toward the rim in transition. Tatum didn’t throw a perfect pass, but it didn’t matter. Williams extended his arms to catch it before hammering home his second alley-oop dunk of the game.

“Transition, even in the half court when you get in trouble, it’s like an outlet,” Tatum said. “And you just kind of throw it up there and trust that he’ll go get it and dunk it.”

Almost regardless of how high a teammate throws the ball, Williams will go and get it. He couldn’t wait to do it again in a real game. About an hour before tipoff, he walked through the locker room with a huge smile on his face. At long last, the Celtics’ ceiling raiser was back.

(Photo of the Celtics’ Robert Williams and Moritz Wagner of the Magic: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)


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