Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Celtics have options to survive Robert Williams injury, and one might be starting playoffs from a lower seed

One of the blander moves of this year’s NBA trade deadline was the Boston Celtics bringing back Daniel Theis, whom they traded to Houston at the 2021 deadline. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Just a little added depth to Boston’s frontcourt in the form of an institutionally savvy big. 

Now, that footnote trade could end up being the move that helps save the Celtics. 

On Monday, some pretty crushing news broke that Boston’s starting center, Robert Williams III, will be sidelined indefinitely with a torn left meniscus. He’ll have surgery and is optimistic that he’ll be able to return at some point in the playoffs. We shall see about that. 

Either way, Boston has a major challenge on its hands for the foreseeable future in trying to replace, to whatever degree possible, the presence and production of Williams. Theis will certainly play a role in this by-committee task. When the postseason rolls around, Ime Udoka could elect to start Theis alongside Al Horford to keep Boston’s two-big lineup in place, but I don’t think he does that. 

Theis is not the vertical, athletic defender that Williams is at the rim, and if Boston starts Horford and Theis alongside one another, the bench becomes that much more thin and vulnerable to foul trouble. I think Theis makes the bench more sturdy while Grant Williams slides into Robert Williams’ role. 

Again, Grant doesn’t provide Robert’s athleticism as a shot blocker or rolling finisher, but importantly he allows the Celtics to keep with their switching defensive principles. He can guard across positions and stretch the floor as a 42-percent 3-point shooter. This keeps the train moving on both ends.  

The other option is to start Derrick White alongside Marcus Smart, a tandem that offers its own defensive boon, but to me keeping some offensive juice on the bench unit is important, even though all of Boston’s postseason lineups are going to be anchored by one of the Jays. 

This is all a long way of saying: All hope isn’t lost for the Celtics, who have established themselves as arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference and an upper-tier title contender. But the road is definitely going to be tougher. Williams is not just some team-scheme defender; he’s a difference-maker. You don’t just replace that kind of size and athleticism. 

What becomes interesting now is Boston’s preferred postseason path. Before the Williams injury, I don’t think the Celtics cared who they played or when they played them. Now, it would surely behoove the Celtics to create the most advantageous matchups they can through the first few rounds in hopes that the longer they stay alive, the more time they give Williams to recover. 

To be clear, the are no easy paths through the first two rounds in this year’s Eastern Conference. Hell, there aren’t even going to be an easy first-round series. That said, the Celtics dropped from the No. 1 seed to No. 4 by virtue of their overtime loss to Toronto on Monday, and that might be a good thing. 

To me, without Williams, priority number one becomes avoiding the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. To ensure that, the Celtics need to finish no higher than the No. 3 seed (At No. 1 or No. 2, depending on whether Brooklyn finishes No. 8 or 9, the Nets are in play). 

Priority number two, again, in my opinion, would be playing the Heat, if seeds hold, in the second round. That can happen a couple different ways. Boston could end up No. 1 and Miami lands at No. 4, or vice versa, or they could end up as the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in some order. 

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But again, being one of the top two seeds brings a potential first-round matchup with Brooklyn into play. At No. 3, the Celtics would likely get the Raptors or the Cavaliers in the first round. At No. 4, they would likely get the Bulls. If Miami holds at No. 1, the Celtics, at No. 4, could avoid the Bucks, Sixers, and/or Nets until the conference finals. 

Long story short, Williams’ injury might make the Celtics rethink whether they want to be one of the top two seeds. No. 3 or 4 might be their best bet to put off the toughest matchups for as long as possible in hopes that it gives Williams time to return. 

There would be a lot of factors in play for this to happen, many of which are out of Boston’s control. You never know, Boston might be so confident right now that it still doesn’t care when or where it plays anyone. However it shakes out, this is an undeniably brutal blow to a team with honest championship aspirations. 

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