On January 14, the Boston Celtics found themselves 11th in the Eastern Conference, just 21-22 and a half-game behind the disappointing New York Knicks. Since, a nine-game spurt launched Boston back up the standings. Then the Celtics kept winning, quietly emerging as a bona fide title contender during Jayson Tatum’s offensive explosion while boasting a tenacious defense anchored by Robert Williams III.
“They’ve been the best team in the league over the last 20 games,” one assistant general manager told B/R.
But losing Williams to a torn meniscus, as was reported Monday, immediately after Boston took over first place in the conference, is simply a cruel twist of fate. Williams has blossomed into one of the more effective rim protectors in the NBA, ranking second in blocks per game. Williams has been terrorizing opponents from the back line of a vaunted defense after first-year head coach Ime Udoka shifted the scheme away from switching every action on the perimeter.
It’s become remarkable that a perceived lack of motor at Texas A&M sent Williams tumbling to the 27th pick in the 2018 draft. His four-year, $48 million extension that begins next season now stands as one of the best bargain deals in the league.
There’s no set timetable for Williams’ return this season, sources said, although he’s expected to miss several weeks. After greater examination and further consultation with the medical staff, Boston will likely determine over the next week when its starting center can rejoin the team.
There is a high variance for meniscus injuries, depending on the location of the tear. Joel Embiid, for example, played through a tear in his right knee during last year’s playoffs. On the other hand, Collin Sexton has missed the majority of the 2021-22 season in Cleveland after undergoing surgery for a meniscus tear.
The Celtics defense still projects as ferocious, regardless of Williams’ status. Al Horford’s versatility has been credited by league personnel as key an ingredient as any within Boston’s scheme. It was just two years ago the Celtics reached the conference finals with Daniel Theis, reacquired from Houston at the trade deadline, as their starting 5. They’ve since seen both Theis and Grant Williams have success alongside Horford this season.
The offense has stood as Boston’s great question mark dating back to last year’s sputtering campaign, particularly the fit between Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Udoka’s Celtics then arrived at trade deadline day with the 18th-best scoring attack in the league, according to NBA.com. As the team floundered through its first 40 games, already on the back of a 2020-21 season that produced a mediocre 36-36 record and the No. 7 seed, there was tangible momentum leading toward an ultimate divorce of Boston’s two All-Star wings.
The Celtics had no intentions of exploring that scenario before this February’s deadline, but conversations increased around the league—and among people close to both players—about the likelihood of Boston revisiting that outcome this offseason. Losing can spark wandering eyes. If Philadelphia had not been able to unload Ben Simmons, Brown would have been near the top of the Sixers’ wish list. Atlanta and Miami were often mentioned by league figures as hopeful Brown suitors, too.
That all feels like a distant memory now. By all accounts, Tatum and Brown have maintained a friendship off the court and relished playing alongside each other. Perhaps all those conversations, that each All-Star needs the ball, that they were stepping on each other’s toes, were actually a byproduct of the Celtics’ greater team alchemy, not the tandem’s stylistic fit. Of course there was less creative opportunity for both Tatum and Brown when Kemba Walker—Kyrie Irving before him—and Gordon Hayward commanded a lot of oxygen in Brad Stevens’ offense.
Following this year’s trade deadline, Tatum and Brown, not to mention Boston as a whole, have found an offensive rhythm with the departures of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson. Udoka’s staff started to see the benefits of Schroder playing more of a reserve role in late January and concluded playing both Schroder and Marcus Smart in closing lineups was suboptimal, each shooting with a streaky touch that limited the spacing around Tatum and Brown’s primary activity. While Richardson had performed as advertised in Boston and seemed valued by Celtics staffers, his penchant for slower decision-making bogged down the flow of Boston’s scoring attack as well.
League personnel have pointed to Udoka as further connective tissue between Tatum and Brown, and Boston’s entire traveling party.
He is a true Gregg Popovich disciple who barks specific offensive sets in the half-court and drew attention from around the NBA for frequently calling out Boston’s players during early postgame media sessions.
It took half a season, but that approach has since passed with flying colors. Udoka, sources told B/R, balances the line between establishing a level of seriousness and a loose environment while focusing on communicating clear roles and hierarchies for Celtics players and coaching staffers alike.
It should also be noted that Stevens, after being elevated to team president and general manager, permitted Udoka to hire his own staff, whereas front offices across the NBA have grown more active in handpicking assistants underneath their head coach.
Udoka’s group often staggers Tatum and Brown’s minutes to allow each All-Star his chance to shine and run play after play. The Celtics’ recent lineup starring Tatum and the team’s reserves—Theis, Williams, Payton Pritchard, plus deadline acquisition Derrick White—has produced a promising net rating of 16.0 points per 100 possessions within a seven-game, 32-minute sample size.
White, acquired from San Antonio largely for Richardson and a first-round pick, has been a perfect complement to Boston’s star duo, a quick decision-maker and low-usage ball-mover. He has thrived as a screener at the top of the key, slipping into the middle out of on-ball double-teams where he can play four-on-three against a scrambling opponent. In hindsight, the Celtics’ offseason interest in Lonzo Ball makes perfect sense.
Tatum has now morphed into the league’s leader in total points. Over 12 games this March, he has blistering 53.9/46.6/91.0 shooting splits, averaging 33.7 points per game. Tatum is playing like a 24-year-old finding his authentic self, a superstar knocking down the door of his prime.
League figures credit Tatum—known for his quiet, humble demeanor—for taking a larger role as a vocal leader for Boston this season. For a coaching staff with such deep San Antonio ties, Tatum’s approach to his craft, his professionalism, his consistency all runs parallel to those of Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan.
Leading by example still matters, too. During games, both Tatum and Brown’s commitment to defense has helped establish expectations down Boston’s roster.
Boston has six more regular-season games to tweak and experiment its scheme without Robert Williams, one of the league’s most valuable defenders this season. But if any team can sustain such a loss, it’s one with the NBA’s best-ranked defense and an offense that has two proven playoff isolation scorers in Tatum and Brown.
“They’ve finally figured it out,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “When you do that, and you have two top-20 players, that’s very, very scary.”
Stats up to date entering Monday's games and via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.