Just when the Boston Celtics had a chance to claim first place in the Eastern Conference, disaster struck. While cruising along to another easy victory on Sunday, this time against the Minnesota Timberwolves, starting center Robert Williams went out with a knee injury. This morning, Williams underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, something which will keep him out for the next 4-6 weeks.
The news could have been worse. Before the surgery, there was talk that Williams’ return could be delayed until next season. At least now the Celtics can hold on to the hope that they can stay alive in the postseason until the young big man is well enough to play. (How healthy Williams will be when that happens, of course, remains a “wait and see” type of situation.)
Williams’s injury highlights the wisdom of Boston’s trade deadline moves. In dumping Enes Freedom and reacquiring Dennis Theis, who was their starting center just two years ago, at the cost of Dennis Schröder and his expiring contract, they made a huge defensive upgrade that is promptly paying off.
However, the man they call the Time Lord has quickly become an irreplaceable and nigh-unstoppable force in the Celtics lineup. Williams’s swift development into one of the league’s top big men is a key reason that they have emerged as the NBA’s best defense throughout the second half of the season.
Before the injury, Williams was even receiving some Defensive Player of the Year buzz, even if the center was careful to give his particular vote to teammate Marcus Smart. He was a key reason why, as an anonymous assistant general manager told Bleacher Report that before Williams’s injury, the Celtics were “the best team in the league over the last 20 games.”
These last weeks of the regular season will give the Celtics the chance to see if they can keep up that pace without their starting center. Despite being a 115-112 overtime loss, Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors proved that this Boston team has learned resilience during this topsy-turvy season. On the second night of a back-to-back, the already Williams-less Celtics rested Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford and still somehow nearly pulled off a victory.
“Love the fight, love the effort,” head coach Ime Udoka said after the loss, while characteristically pointing out his team’s mistakes.
The limited roster also gave Udoka a chance to give some much-needed opportunities for players lower on the depth chart to show what they could do with larger roles. While Smart, the sole remaining starter, was predictably the team’s leading scorer, Derrick White had a worthy all-around game where he scored 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile, the struggling Aaron Nesmith scored 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
They will both need to step up in Williams’s absence. Not only has the Time Lord become a key cog in the Celtics’ impressive defense, but he has also become an efficient scorer around the rim and a ridiculous proficient rebounder, averaging 9.6 per game. No one player is going to be able to replace Williams, particularly in plays close to the basket, but if the entire team raises their game, they can’t be completely counted out as potential contenders in the East.
Let us not, however, be too Pollyannish here: this news provides a serious blow to the Celtics’ hopes of raising Banner 18 this year. Until they prove otherwise, they will once again have to be regarded as title longshots after a brief few weeks where some were even labeling them as potential favorites. Of course, given how this team has surpassed expectations these past three months, maybe they would prefer having the odds stacked against them.