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2022 NBA Finals: Can Robert Williams III find a home for the Celtics?

2022 NBA Finals: Can Robert Williams III find a home for the Celtics?

The Boston Celtics wouldn't be where they are without Robert Williams III.

Ime Udoka's midseason shift — slotting Williams onto the opponent's least threatening wing — played a major role in Boston's defensive turnaround. It allowed Williams to lurk around the paint and provide an extra layer of resistance if his teammates were beat.

It's a genius move when you think about it. Not only are you not worried about the spacing from that wing he's "guarding," but it's also highly unlikely he'll have juice as a screener to compensate like a non-shooting big would. That gambit has paid off for the entirety of 2022, and its success has carried over into the postseason. Just ask the Miami Heat about it

The Golden State Warriors pose a different challenge for defenses, and for Williams in particular. They can simplify things and pick-and-roll you to death, but that isn't their M.O. Movement is the name of the game: pindowns, flares, staggers, split cuts. You name it, they'll do it. And if it doesn't work, they'll cut and relocate and cut until someone makes a mistake. 

This season (including postseason play), the Warriors rank second in shot quality and first in opponent contest rate (the lower, the better) in the final 8 seconds of the shot clock, per Second Spectrum. In other words: Your work ain't done just because you managed to shut down their initial action.

Not only are the Warriors continuously active, they spread the wealth. The #StrengthInNumbers tagline may annoy fans at times, but it's hard not to see the benefit of that ethos. Everyone moves. Everyone touches the ball. Everyone, at any given time, can be a threat.

That throws a wrench into the "stash Williams on a non-shooter" plan.

Looney can't shoot, but he's an active screener on and off the ball. He's also a handoff hub. Sinking off of Looney is daring him to flow into an action with a shooter. Not just any shooter: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson (struggling but still deadly), and Jordan Poole are your options.

Draymond can't shoot — it looks painful when he loads up sometimes — but he offers the same versatility as a screener, and adds a layer as a handoff option. Not only can he find movement threats, but he can also fake the funk and get downhill himself.

The Celtics have taken their chances with Andrew Wiggins as the Williams matchup, an option that's been mentioned in this space before the Finals began. In theory, Wiggins is the safest bet. He doesn't screen as often (or as well) as Looney. He doesn't offer the same blend of screening and playmaking as Draymond does. He surely doesn't shoot as well as the Curry/Thompson/Poole triumvirate. You worry about Wiggins as a driver, but it gives you a lesser-of-evils vibe.

The Warriors have already started to poke at that matchup.

They've tested out some on-ball reps with Wiggins. A handful of possessions have been spearheaded by handoffs or pick-and-rolls as a way to engage Williams. Make him work through some muck from time to time.

We've also seen the off-ball stuff. Wiggins has been used as a handoff hub, as a cutter or screener in the Warriors' patented split action. This possession still has me confused — but that's also the point of the movement. 

In a fun twist, the Curry-Wiggins combo has been the highest-volume pick-and-roll pairing of the Finals (15 picks). The Warriors have generated a jaw-dropping 1.9 points per direct hook-up — virtually a guaranteed bucket. The reps with Williams involved have been... well...

Yeah.

And because Williams can be targeted — he's in a deeper drop than Al Horford, and Williams is still hampered with a knee injury — the Celtics have had to further scheme around him. We're starting to see more scram and pre-switches — getting Williams out of the action before the Warriors can attack.

Both of those plays end in fouls, and neither resulted in a bucket on Horford. But the strain is the key here. It's added work to Horford's plate. Williams is supposed to be a complement; his minutes have included more compensating than complementing.

That has ripple effects elsewhere. If Williams can't hold — he logged 14 minutes in Game 2 after logging 24 in Game 1 — that production has to come from somewhere.

There's more pressure on Grant Williams to produce alongside Horford in smaller lineups. He's been a relative no-show, with 6 points (one made three on two attempts) to his name at this point of the series. The switching hasn't hit the same thus far, with Curry finding early comfort when getting that matchup.

There's heightened importance to the Daniel Theis minutes if Boston wants to maintain double-big looks. The Warriors outscoring the Celtics by 10 in Theis' 20 minutes isn't a great sign. The Warriors generating nearly 1.6 points per possession when targeting Theis in pick-and-roll is also not a great sign.

One might argue it's very, very bad!

(To shoot Theis a little bit of bail, I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with this.)

Having had a pair of off days before Game 3, the hope is that Williams III will be able to move more fluidly. He may be able to navigate the Wiggins matchup better. Or if he's tossed onto Looney or Green, he may be more equipped to defend those actions higher up the floor. 

The Celtics need him to find something — or they need to find a different coverage or matchup for him. Otherwise, they'll need to pivot.

That can work — the other Williams has defended and shot at a high level for most of the postseason, and I ultimately think the Celtics will win this series behind their smaller lineups if they win it — but you want the lineup or role changes to come from a position of strength. 

This will be one of the most important storylines to track as the series goes forward.

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