Last night’s exhibition opener against Philadelphia found the Celtics in only a partial reveal.
The two players at the top of their big man rotation, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, missed the game due to injury concerns — the former with a sore back and the latter with a hamstring strain that has forced him to miss all of training camp.
The result was a lot of Robert Williams, with support from Tacko Fall and, in smaller scenarios, Grant Williams.
It’s a familiar pattern. The 2019-20 Celtics had an ongoing rotation of big men who each had a different skill. Theis grew into his role and nailed down the starting job thanks to defensive versatility, a strong rim running game, and an improved 3-pointer. Enes Kanter was there for the more physical matchups and, when the Celtics got hammered inside, a rebounding presence. Williams, with perhaps the highest ceiling of anyone in the group, had some exciting moments of rim dominance at both ends of the floor.
He was also inconsistent, which is why opportunities like the one last night, against Joel Embiid, are so important for the young center.
Those dominant flashes Williams showed in the playoffs have a chance to blossom now. After roughly a three-month layoff, he’s also counting on some carryover.
“I plan on for sure picking up where I left off in the playoffs. I feel like I have that same good energy, the good momentum,” he said. “Just learning that I don’t have to dunk everything. Working on my touch, floaters around the rim, that’s been a big part of my offseason.
“I was working with one of the trainers that I was around when I grew up. He helped me a lot strengthening my core. I fall a lot. (Danny Ainge) tells me that all the time. I fall a lot on the court. He helped me strengthen my core. But other than that, I usually just wake up and run a couple of miles every morning, just making sure my conditioning was straight.”
Brad Stevens wants all of his players following this pattern — working on their strengths as well as new wrinkles.
“I think there’s two things that guys are always doing in their individual work,” said Stevens. “No. 1 is they’re honing in on the things that allow them to impact winning right now, and hopefully perfecting those things. No. 2 is you add things to your game that you may not be using now, but may be sometimes years of work, sometimes a few months of work, sometimes an offseason of work, but then you can add and do so effectively. Until you can do it effectively it’s nothing more than just work for the future.
“But hopefully our guys can do their best within their roles and add to their game. When I was coaching in college we used to call that ‘extra time’ that guys would have to work to add like a dream time of a workout, whether it’s adding a 3-pointer, a jump-hook, a mid-range game, a floater game, whatever the case may be. If it wasn’t part of your arsenal, work on that. But don’t lose sight of the things you do best.”
Of course, with Thompson yet to practice with the group, the Celtics’ entire big man rotation will be working as a group in this way, too.
“We have a deep roster, we have so many guys who can play. We need it for a long season, especially the shortest season time period for 72 games, we need a lot of guys,” Theis said of who will be involved.
“We need a lot of bodies to throw out there. Tristan is going to be a good help for us. He’s one of the best rebounders in the NBA,” he said. “He’s athletic, so probably would say he needs a little bit of time as soon as he can practice with us to find a rhythm, to find the way we play. Also with Rob and Tacko, we need those guys down the stretch in our season. Rob, he’s a different player, he plays way above the rim that not many guys that’s out there, you can throw up a lob anywhere.
“Same with Tacko, he learned so much since last year, just using his size and playing the way a center his size should play, in the paint and also just being a rim protector.”
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