Halftime Hot Takes: The Boston Celtics are ready for Robert Williams’ return

The Boston Celtics have a royal audience this evening, as they face off against their erstwhile Eastern Conference Finals foes, the Miami Heat, with the Prince and Princess of Wales in the audience for the Wednesday night showdown. Thus far, the Royal Family has been treated to a summarily fitting performance from the 2022-23 Celtics: while the offense looks as indominable as ever, the tenacious defense that paced the NBA last season has been present only sporadically.

The Celtics lead the NBA in offensive rating in a big way (120.9 entering play tonight, five points ahead of the second-place Suns), but even after some improved performance in recent weeks, the defense ranks solidly middle-of-the-pack at 14th (111.9 DRTG). They’re not a bad defense by any stretch — they have too much defensive talent in the lineup for that to be the case — but there’s clearly still fruit on the tree waiting to be picked.

Those numbers passed the eye test in the first half tonight. An electric start to the game for the Boston quickly gave way to a big Miami run. The Celtics opened up the game outscoring the Heat 20-6, only for the Heat to respond with a 21-5 run of their own to retake the lead. The problem came inside the arc; the Heat saw little success from deep in the early going, but converted on nine of their first 11 two-point attempts to claw their way back into the game.

Thankfully, reinforcements are on the way. Robert Williams scrimmaged with the team this afternoon, continuing to ramp up into basketball shape as he recovers from an offseason procedure on his knee. Joe Mazzulla discussed Williams’ activity prior to the game, noting that his return to the lineup will very likely be coming sooner rather than later.

Boston’s frontcourt depth has performed admirably in Williams’ absence to this point. Al Horford looks as sharp as ever, even at 36 years old. Grant Williams is thriving in a contract season. Luke Kornet has established himself as a legitimately useful rotation piece, and Blake Griffin has brought some juice when the team has been shorthanded. Concerns about the team’s depth in the frontcourt have been allayed to some extent across these early games.

None of those players bring what Williams has to offer, though. The fifth year center is one of the league’s most formidable paint presences — a prolific shot-blocker and a second-team All-Defense selection last season — and his impending return to the lineup is one of the most exciting developments in this teams immediate future. This defense needs something to take it from “good” to “great,” and Williams’ return may really be the answer.

Williams won’t be joining the team for the third quarter, of course. For the time being, the Celtics will have to find a way to stymy Miami’s aggressive paint attack without his services. Nevertheless, the first half gave us a snapshot of the kind of value Williams will offer this team when he does return. The Boston Celtics have been the best team in basketball to this point, and if Robert Williams hits the ground running when he returns to the lineup, it’s entirely possible we haven’t even seen their true ceiling just yet.

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