Before Wednesday at TD Garden, Williams had to take a dip in the Cocoon Pool with Don Ameche and Wilford Brimley as he played with a physical energy, a zip that hadn’t been seen since the injury. He chased offensive rebounds. He hit Golden State shots at the rim. He picked up loose balls. It has high trampoline for dunks.
The Celtics got the better of Williams in their thrilling 116-100 win. Three days after hobbling off the floor in Game 2, the Warriors players shouted from the bench: “He can’t move!” on offensive possessions, Williams shrugged off the pain, ran vigorously with his limp and made a defensive impact in this critical win.
Williams played nearly 26 minutes, his most of the series, and finished with 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocked shots, 3 steals and several modified shots at the rim. The Celtics needed Rob protecting the rim for Game 3 if they had any hope of responding to their Game 2 beating.
And he wasn’t sure if he was physically able to provide that edge resistance. He underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus on March 30 and returned on April 23, with the organization knowing the knee needed constant attention and would swell after games. Williams then suffered a bone bruise in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks and missed the final four games of the series.
He’s worked since, missing Game 3 of the Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Since then, he has played in seven consecutive games, giving the Celtics everything he could give. Sometimes the results aren’t outstanding and other nights he displays flashes of defensive brilliance and offensive dominance on the edge.
“I just try to be responsible for my team,” he said. “We have come this far. Like I said, I obviously had a discussion with myself, pushing through this. I’m happy with the way it’s going. We will worry about the injury after the season, but for now I am still fighting.
These “questionable” lists before each game are not wit. They are legit. Williams felt in different ways after games during the playoffs, from extremely sore to somewhat nimble. Doctors told the Celtics that Williams couldn’t do more damage to the knee, so it’s all about the pain.
And one-legged players aren’t useful in high-level NBA Finals. Williams needs to be productive when he’s on the court. So his game-to-game recovery is a meticulous process.
“At this stage of the season, it is what it is. We’ve talked about it. But he doesn’t physically do much in between, so you don’t really make sense until he has a really good warm-up,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “The next day it’s okay sometimes. The second day it’s sometimes more painful. So it comes and goes. That’s why we have the deliberate intention to list him and really examine him in case he feels worse.
“The swelling has been good. The pain was tolerable. It’s a legitimate everyday situation, and when he ramps up before the game, that’s when we know how he really feels.
The importance of Williams to the success of the team is indisputable. He is a puppet in the paint with the ability to close on 3-point shooters and also above average feel for the game and basketball IQ. His ability to bounce back from injury has been his biggest detractor throughout his career. He was dogged by nagging injuries in his first three seasons. This has kept him out of action for 51 games over the past two seasons.
But it’s not the regular season. It’s where legends are created, banners are won, teams are immortalized. The Celtics need a 70% Robert Williams. They need him to take the pain, learn to run with the hitch in his stride and protect the rim, deter Stephen Curry from attacking the rim.
He copes with the obvious pain, rests on rest days, then ramps up his workouts on game days. Early Wednesday, he rode a stationary bike, felt nimble, and briefed coaches to remove the “doubtful” from his status.
He’s showing not only his coaches, but also his teammates and the Celtics faithful that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to achieve his ultimate goal.
“I talk to Rob constantly, just for the simple fact that I know what he’s going through,” guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s in pain, and even though he’s injured, he still wants to come out and help his team. But at the same time, he thinks about his career. Like I just told him, you know your body. You know what you can take and what you can’t. But know that we have a chance to do something special. There is no guarantee that we will stay here again.
“If you can go, we’ll take 20% of you better than none of you. He figured that out, and he decided to go out there and put on his big boy pants and suck it off and go crazy.
Gary Washburn is a columnist for The Globe. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.