Celtics focus on ‘big picture’ as Robert Williams hampers Warriors’ momentum

Even in the NBA Finals, Boston Celtics coach Im Odoka looks beyond the present.

With only this latest series remaining between the Celtics and a potential tournament, Udoka has every reason to make decisions based on what’s out there now. However, he said he is thinking about the future as he considers his options for Wednesday night’s game three. While deciding how to approach his lineup and rotation, Udoka said he had a “big picture approach” into consideration.

This Celtics core can last for a long time. If young senior Robert Williams III can discover this unique challenge to the Warriors, Odoka suggested that the benefit would continue.

“It’s the NBA Finals and we have to do what we have to do to win,” Odoka said. “But that’s the core group going forward, and having the confidence to be able to figure it out with him will be huge in the future.”

Williams is in pain after undergoing meniscus surgery late in the regular season. He’s trying to stop the Warriors with enough gunfire to get a lot of big guys off the field. He still collects eight points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and three steals. Still charging a decisive run in the fourth quarter that propelled the Celtics toward a 116-100 win. He showed enough that Odoka, after limiting the combined minutes from his first area earlier in the game, closed in with both Williams and Horford during the last meaningful moments.

“He (Williams) has to be adaptable and be able to play in any kind of situation,” Odoka said.

The Big Picture. small picture. Maybe everything is the same. The Celtics were rocking after the third quarter. Stephen Curry and the Warriors were charging. The TD Garden crowd, desperate for a win during the building’s first final game in 12 years, suddenly looked uneasy until Williams rekindled all the good vibes. Having looked faltering at times earlier in the playoffs, particularly late in the Miami series, he bolstered Boston’s defense during the fourth-quarter round.

Over two minutes early in that period, Williams made three heists and a block while taking Curry’s space. To help the Celtics increase their lead to 11 points, Williams blocked Curry’s buoy, intercepting two Curry passes and forcing Curry to throw in another pass from Draymond Green’s leg.

“It changed the rules of the game,” Horford said. “We are so fortunate to have a guy like this impact the win the way he does because he goes above numbers with him. It’s just all the things he brings, in the right places. I’m very impressed with Rob, just his ability to keep improving and learning.”

Williams needed to adjust during this streak. The Celtics often use it in a lower circumference player, allowing him to hang off his leg and edge protection, but Warriors don’t have many of those. If assigned to Green, Williams would need to navigate all of his dribbling and dribbling deliveries with Carey and Thompson. The Celtics have often asked Williams to protect Andrew Wiggins, but he’s not as much of a threat as some of the players Williams has defended all season. Wiggins has hit nearly 40 percent of his 3-point arc this season and has a highly athletic ability to attack the edge.

“Wiggins is different from PJ Tucker and some guys have that kind of stand in the corner more,” Odoka said. “He’s more active and can put him in place a little bit better, so that caused (Williams) some trouble.”

Far from Williams’ encounters, the Warriors put teams in a mixer with all sorts of offensive moves, on and off the ball. Curry moves as much as any player moves. If it opens, even for a second, it could mean a problem. Relax against him or against Thompson for a minute and they can go 8-0, as the Warriors did during the second quarter Wednesday.

Heck, they even got seven points during the third. Curry hit a pointer and a 1 3 with a blatant foul from Horford, then Otto Porter Jr. followed up with a triple on the clock on the Warriors’ extra chance. In a flash, the Celtics’ lead shrank from nine points to two. Forever Warriors are about to become a haymaker.

Williams needs help curbing traitorous shooters while playing on her troubled knees. As talented as he is, there is a lot more to claim from a young position starting in postseason debut. Even after doing his second All-NBA team defense, he’s still learning how to navigate certain situations. Towards the end of the third quarter, Williams set himself a long way from Thompson, allowing one of the best shooters ever to shoot a clean look.

Odoka took about five steps down the sideline and threw his arm forcefully into the air. With a poor lead late in the game, he knew the Celtics couldn’t relax and chop.

“He was[angry],” Williams said. “Yes I saw.”

Williams said he thought he was defending the movement high enough. Against most teams or players, that’s probably true. Not just against Warriors. Not against Thompson, who bowed out in 3-pointers to cut the Celtics’ lead to four points. After the shot, Williams heard his coach’s wrath.

In moments like this, one of the Celtics’ mysteries in this Finals game becomes clear. They want to take advantage of their obvious size advantage, but, especially with Williams’ ongoing health issues, big line-ups against Golden State can lead to problems.

Knowing this, Odoka pulled away from the Horford-Williams duo after three minutes of each run, much faster than he usually does. Odoka still wanted to stay with that group as the front zone initially even though she had struggles during the first two games of the series. Williams and Horford have been key to the best defense in the league all season. Udoka wanted to give them a chance to solve it.

“There may be some other things we look at before changing the squad,” Odoka said before the match. “Switching coverages and switching matches and stuff and our substitution patterns and formations work well together. There’s also the big picture approach, too, a core group that we want to build by moving forward and understanding how to protect each situation.”

Udoka still goes to smaller groups earlier and more often. Even when he did, the Celtics were able to play more aggressively than they did in Game Two. And they bounced back 45.7 percent of their mistakes in the half-court, according to Glass Clean.

After scoring only 24 points in the paint during Game 2, they more than doubled that output to 52 points Wednesday night. Marcus Smart, Jason Tatum and Jaylene Brown combined to score 15 field goals inside the paint, more than the entire team did in Game Two. Smart said his team’s fitness started with Brown, who scored 17 points during the first quarter.

“We followed in his footsteps then,” Smart said.

The Celtics then followed Williams’ lead in the fourth quarter. He didn’t make another mistake like Thompson’s. At 9 minutes, 41 seconds of play time in the fourth quarter, the Celtics outscored Golden State by 21-11. During this stretch, the Warriors had as many transformations (five) as the baskets made.

At least for one night, his knee looked fine. Williams said he took advantage of a switch in his pre-game regime: ride the bike earlier. However, he said his injury usually bothers him the most the day after the match, once the adrenaline wears off. He needed to add more stretching, stimulation, and ice treatments to his routine. During some games, he wasn’t mobile but found ways to stay in the lineup.

“I’m just trying to be responsible for my team,” Williams said. “We’ve come this far. I’ve had a discussion with myself, going through with this. I’m happy with what’s going on. We’ll worry about injury after the season, but for now, I’m still fighting.”

I’m still learning too. How to manage pain. How to influence a game with disabled sports. How to remove looks from world class shooters like Curry and Thompson.

“I feel like we could ask him a lot,” Horford said. “And he always takes it, defines it.”

The NBA Finals could be dramatically altered if Curry’s foot injury, which he suffered late in the fourth quarter, forces him out of the Warriors’ squad. Assuming he can keep playing, the next two wins should be the Celtics’ toughest of the season. They are now close to their first franchise championship since 2008 due to Williams’ impulse. With his knee injured, in a game that shouldn’t necessarily be in favor of a center, he took charge of the Celtics late Wednesday night.

“He’s been doing it for us all year,” Smart said.

Sure, but not much lately. Williams hasn’t been that good since his knee got bad. Even at less than 100 percent, the Celtics know how much they can help.

During recent conversations with Williams, Smart said he was impressed by the big man that the Celtics had a chance to do something special, and that they had no guarantees of reaching this stage of the playoffs again.

Smart said, “If you could go, we’d take 20 percent of you. (That would be) better than none of you. He understood that, and he decided to go out there and put his little pants on and suck it up and go crazy.”


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(Photo by Draymond Green and Robert Williams III: Kyle Terada/USA Today)

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