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NBA

Robert Williams Was Everywhere

of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Boston. (Kyle Terada/Pool Photo via AP)
Kyle Terada/Pool Photo via AP

Robert Williams III seized last night’s Celtics-Warriors game and made it the Boston Celtics’ to do with as they pleased. His box score was modest enough, except for four blocked shots that seemed like 13, 10 rebounds that seemed like 27, and three steals that seemed like eleventy-skillion. He was the new and differently intriguing Draymond Green, and around him swirled Boston’s 116-100 victory in Game 3 of this best-of-how-many-you-got NBA Finals.

And it wasn’t just one play, or one shot, or one moment. It was the way your eyes were seized and dragged at first reluctantly and eventually with eagerness to what he was about to do to the Warriors. He changed shots, blocked shots, deterred shooting decisions and restructured ideas about shooting. He was allegedly dogged by a game leg but looked Wednesday like he could juggle tractor motors with his feet. He just did stuff that the Warriors found first confounding and eventually demoralizing, so much so that even Golden State’s traditional third-quarter blitz fell short of actual game control. The 16-point margin makes little sense when stacked against the 12-point margin in Game 1 and the minus-19 in Game 2, but watching Williams be a new and younger version of the best of Green made it all make sense.

Oh, there were other Celtics. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart (especially Marcus Smart), and Grant Williams all had exemplary nights in a game that managed to convince most neutral observers that Boston is indeed what Golden State used to be. But Bob Williams The Younger Younger was the one who seized your face and demanded that you enjoy the many ways he made the Warriors look … well, old isn’t the right word, but discombobulated surely is. He was the provocateur that didn’t need Green as a foil; he just disrupted Golden State on the sub-atomic level and showed them why this series will be an exercise in off-brand cruelty. A series won at the edges must still be won, and of all the winners Wednesday night, Robert Williams was the 100-watt bulb drawing a forest full of moths.

His gammy leg is still an issue, and Friday marks the one game in this series that does not allow for 72 hours of recuperation. But his knee is probably healing itself even as we speak, and the notion that he might be the game’s next Draymond Green surely must invigorate him as it invigorates Celtics’ fans, who only got their money’s worth last night if they did not come to see a revenge war over Game 2. The Celtics under Ime Udoka have no need for that. The wider the fairway, the better the approach shot, so they did not declare war on Green for his well-honed gift for disruption—rather, they kind of flattered Green by winning Game 3 at the margins, being active, persistent, and mobile. They won the turnover and offensive rebounding battles decisively, and Tatum, Brown, and Smart were the obvious guideposts in negating a typical Curry game, a vintage Klay game, and Golden State’s third quarter.

But the eye test, which may not always be dispositive but can be most inspirational, led inexorably to Williams The Youngest, who saw to it that the Celtics played with a sparkle and fizz they did not have in Game 2 and had only for one quarter of Game 1. He played twice as much as he did in Game 2 with five times more impact. He now has as many blocked shots (10) as shots taken, and has spaced those blocks out for maximum impact, one in each quarter of the two Celtics victories and one each in the first and third quarters in Game 2 (he did not play in the garbagefest fourth quarter). He made you watch and the Warriors avert their eyes, and now the series demands a response from the three-time champions if this is to be as filling and nourishing as only a proper seven-gamer can provide.

And that response will have to come with the knowledge that Boston has a Draymond Green of their own, a defining player who can separate two otherwise equal teams by being the one thing nobody considered he could be on this stage: he who defines the terms under which the rest of this series will be played.