Robert Williams had been thriving at the Boston Celtics’ starting center spot since the trade deadline coming into Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Yet throughout Williams’ career, Joel Embiid and company have been a nightmare showdown for the promising great young man. In fact, Brad Stevens eliminated Williams from Boston’s big-man rotation against the Sixers in the team’s first-round showdown last postseason after the athletic big man from Boston struggled to defensively handle the MVP candidate. Williams played just 21 minutes in four games.)
The stakes weren’t that high Tuesday night, but the pressure on Williams to produce was far greater with Boston’s center rotation looking very thin behind him. Daniel Theis was sent to Chicago on the trade deadline and Tristan Thompson had not yet been cleared to return to the court, leaving a slew of NBA fringe centers (Luke Kornet, Mo Wagner, Tacko Fall) backing Williams.
For the Celtics to have a chance against one of the best teams and centers in the NBA, they needed Williams to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. He failed miserably in that regard, fouling with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter in Boston’s 108-98 home loss to the Sixers.
In what could only be described as a painful reality check for Williams, the third-year center demonstrated why Stevens has been hesitant to trust him in important places against elite opponents for much of his career. While it’s not surprising that Williams struggled against Embiid’s strength in the post (something that is the case with just about every center in the league), Williams’ lack of defensive discipline was more concerning.
He bit into pumping fakes on the perimeter and became an easy target for cheap fouls on jump shot attempts on a night the Celtics couldn’t really afford him watching from the touchline. That constant foul problem combined with three turnovers in 14 minutes set the tone for an ugly night at both ends for Boston in the final three quarters.
“Yeah, Rob has a lot of work to do, but he’s a guy who will get better,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “I mean, I knew going into the game that Rob, my biggest concern with Rob was that he would stay on the court. He has to get better with his hands in keeping his hands up, and that sort of thing, but you see that Embiid has all the tricks and takes advantage of every little punch. “
Embiid has been a nightmare for the Celtics all season, scoring 35 points and shooting 20 free throws on Tuesday night alone. On the season, he averages 18.7 free throws per game against Boston, leading the Sixers to a season sweep over the Celtics after Tuesday’s win. Teams across the league have struggled to contain the big man this year as he organizes the most efficient scoring season of his career, but Boston seems less equipped than ever to deal with the MVP nominee, particularly with Theis off the scene as One option.
Tristan Thompson appeared to be no match for Embiid in two head-to-head matches earlier this season, so with Williams’ struggles continuing in the matchup, he’s putting the Celtics in nightmare situations on defense to combat his ability to score all over the court. Even Tuesday night, the Celtics needed a better awareness from Williams about the team’s situation with the lack of help behind him.
“(Embiid) did that to everyone on our team, not just Rob, but, if I had to guess, going into this game, Rob was probably going to fouls a few times in the first few minutes, which is just part of it. of that, ”Stevens said of the Boston struggles. “As much as we talk about it before the game, and he knows it, it’s still different when you’re in the defensive position.”
Despite all the potential Williams brings to the table, nights like this will give the coaching staff a pause. There’s a reason Boston went after another bigger veteran like Andre Drummond after the trade deadline to provide the Celtics with extra size and insurance for these types of matchups. Right now, there are no attractive options on the table for the team in the free-agent market, so Williams, Thompson and company will have to fight much better if these two teams meet again in this postseason. .
Meanwhile, Williams’ teammates want him to put this difficult outing aside as another great game in the East’s playoff race against the Knicks looms Wednesday night for the Celtics at the Garden.
“We have another game tomorrow,” Tatum said of what he said to Williams after the loss. “We all have difficult nights, difficult games in which things did not necessarily go the way we wanted. Don’t be discouraged. We have all been there. I have been there many times. But we have a game tomorrow. It will be ready “.