Celtics center Robert Williams remains a menacing lob threat, and his teammates do not need much daylight to feel comfortable lofting the ball in his direction. On one play during Wednesday’s romp over the Nets, Jayson Tatum ran free on a fast break and hardly even looked at his target as he flicked the ball over his shoulder, in Williams’s general vicinity.
Williams, as is usually the case, had little trouble throwing down the big dunk, much to the delight of an eager TD Garden crowd.
But this season he has been particularly effective doing the work on his own. Prior to that alley-oop from Tatum, three of his five field goals had come after tussling for offensive rebounds.
He slithered into the paint from the back side as Al Horford worked the lane, then tipped Horford’s missed shot to himself before flicking an easy layup in off the backboard. He discarded Nets forward Royce O’Neale — and was probably fortunate he was not called for a foul while doing so — and caught a Tatum miss in midair and converted it.
Then, he completed the most impressive play of the bunch. With four Nets in the paint, Williams lurked and used his wingspan to tap the ball to himself off the backboard. After gathering it under the hoop, he quickly rose on the right side and scored.
“Offensive rebounding, I feel like, is an energy feeder to your teammates,” Williams said. “Obviously, they see you come down with a big rebound, go back up with an and-one, [and you see] the whole bench’s excitement.”
This season Williams is gobbling up 13.3 percent of all available offensive rebounds, a slight uptick from last season, and the third-best mark in the NBA. His production in that area is even more impressive when one considers that Williams made his season debut just six weeks ago after being sidelined following a September maintenance surgery on his left knee.
He finished the Brooklyn game with 16 points and 9 rebounds in just 19 minutes, and he has mostly looked spry and healthy.
“We always encourage Rob to be more aggressive, especially when he catches the ball,” Tatum said. “He’s really a pass-first guy. A lot of times, you encourage him to be a little more selfish, take that extra dribble, finish over the top of somebody. Just continue to give him those opportunities and encourage him to just be better for the team.”
After Williams returned in December there were times when he appeared understandably tentative. He relies on his knees for his springs, so any issue with them would make him cautious. And he may still be finding his footing on the defensive end.
He enters Friday’s game against the Suns averaging 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions. He has never finished a season below 3.7.
“I think he’s trying to get just 100 percent,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said, “and I’m not sure he’s 100 percent. So I’m not sure what his ceiling will look like.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla has said that Williams is no longer on a minutes restriction, but Williams and other players have referenced his playing time limitation in recent weeks. Williams did play a season-high 36 minutes in last Thursday’s win over the Knicks, but then he missed Saturday’s game against the Lakers because of a sore ankle. So Boston will continue to be cautious with their talented big man.
“It’s tough man, trying to manage that,” Williams said. “They do a great job of just coming to check on me during the game, asking if I’m okay. But, I mean, I’m not about to tell you I don’t want to play if you ask me in the game. But hopefully [I’ll] get to that point where I’m playing all those minutes in the game. Just something you’ve got to manage.”
Williams said his conditioning level has improved noticeably since his debut, and he anticipates it will continue to get better. Throughout this process, he has primarily been focused on resuming a normal workload in time for the playoffs, and he still has a few months to work toward that.
“He’s a huge key to our offense if we want to get to where we want to get to,” Mazzulla said.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.