I hope Robert Williams III believes that it was worth it.
I truly hope that he has no regrets about returning to the basketball court for the Boston Celtics, four weeks after meniscus surgery. Yes, it was the playoffs and the Celtics were the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The way that they played defense in the second half of the season carried over into the playoffs. That team had a legitimate chance at winning the franchise’s 18th NBA championship.
The Celtics ended up losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals after slugging their way past the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in the prior postseason rounds. But by the time that they hosted the Bucks for Game 1 of a semifinals series, Williams had already returned to play in two games. He was given a 4-6 week window for recovery when the meniscus injury was diagnosed on Mar. 29. Williams’ first game back for the Celtics was on April 23 for Game 3 of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets — 26 days after the injury.
Heavy’s Sean Dennery reported on Tuesday that Williams will have to miss all of training camp, and likely several weeks of the regular season. Williams needs arthroscopic surgery on his left knee — the one in which the damaged portion of his meniscus was removed in the spring.
This is not the first setback that Williams has dealt with since his playoff return. He collided with Giannis Antetokounmpo and suffered what was then diagnosed as a bone bruise. Williams missed the last four games of that series and was back in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was more than a bone bruise that gave Williams problems against the Heat and the Warriors. The day before the Celtics were eliminated on their home floor in Game 6 of the Finals, a conversation with Williams was published by Yahoo Sports. He revealed that his knee was filling up with fluid so often against the Heat that he stopped having it drained and figured out how to play through the discomfort.
“It gets to me a lot,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “It’s hard to deal with. When I’m out there, the adrenaline and energy takes over so I don’t really think about it during games, but it for sure gets to me a lot.”
That’s the rigor that he was willing to put his body through for a chance at being an NBA champion. Unlike most key contributors, Williams averaged fewer minutes during the postseason than he did in the regular season, because there was only so long that he would be able to perform on the court. But when he was out there he most certainly made his presence felt. The rebounding, the switching, the lob catches, and the blocked shots — it was necessary for the Celtics to make that run. In their Game 6 loss to the Warriors, he went 4-for-8 from the field with 10 points and five blocks. Without Williams in the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s a strong chance that it would’ve been the Heat battling the Warriors in the NBA Finals, but it came at a great cost.
The 2021-22 season was Williams’ breakout performance. He made second-team All-Defense, and the way that he played on that end of the floor is a model for any big man trying to be an NBA contributor with a limited offensive package.
He had signed a four-year $54 million contract extension with the Celtics just prior to the start of last season. It was quite the come-up for him, having only started in 13 games in four seasons. By March, that contract was a bargain, and now in September, there is a possibility that may be the only long-term NBA contract that 24-year-old Williams will ever sign.
Hindsight may always be 20/20, but it’s hard to ignore that forget the high end of six weeks, Williams didn’t even sit out a full four weeks after surgery. In a less medically advanced time, Dwayne Wade had his meniscus removed following a 2002 injury at Marquette that allowed him to return to the court more quickly, and he has blamed that on the knee problems that plagued him throughout his NBA career.
While the procedure is far more advanced 20 years later, Williams’ meniscus was still not completely repaired. That surgery could have kept him out until the 2023-24 season. I understand why neither party would’ve wanted to go that route if it could’ve been avoided, but could a little more care have Williams’ left knee in a better place? Obviously, there’s no way to get an absolute answer to that question, but, now the Celtics are likely going to start the 2022-23 season without one of their best defenders.
If he doesn’t regret returning for the postseason then there isn’t much that the rest of us can say. But if the best of Williams turns out to be last season, his career will be remembered more for question marks than accomplishments.