Less than a minute into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, Jayson Tatum burrows his way into the paint against Gabe Vincent.

At 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, Tatum touts a size and strength edge over the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Vincent. 

Lurking as a reinforcement behind Vincent is Bam Adebayo. If Adebayo pleases, he could send help to deter Tatum’s finish. But Adebayo’s assignment is the sprightly, rangy Robert Williams III, so the fifth-year center stays home and Tatum powers through for the bucket.

About 13 minutes and 30 seconds later, Tatum finds himself on the opposite wing against another smaller opponent. He jabs baseline, opens a narrow driving lane and strides into the paint.

Again, Adebayo is lurking. This time, he does commit to help, so Tatum lofts a lob threat to Williams for the slam. 

That dichotomy is one Miami has grappled with whenever Williams sees the floor. Knee soreness has limited him to 67 minutes across three appearances, but Williams has cast a highly impactful presence in his opportunities. Boston is plus-33 during his minutes in this series after Williams finished fourth in the NBA in defensive DRIP.

Playing 22.3 minutes a night, the All-Defensive Team big man is averaging 11.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 82.2% true shooting. Miami’s lack of interior size beyond Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon’s sporadic chances have provided the platform for Williams to shine on both ends. 

The Celtics’ offense is not rich with rim pressure or lob threats. Williams’ presence as a release valve on drives diversifies their attack. According to NBA.com, they’ve taken 83 shots in the restricted area this series, 37 of which have occurred during his 67 minutes. In the other 125 minutes, they’ve tallied just 46. 

He wields a 7-foot-6 wingspan and is incredibly bouncy off the hardwood. With Miami predominantly switching screens, Adebayo can easily be removed from the paint. Even if there’s not a screen to switch, he’s often guarding Al Horford beyond the arc as well. 

A tenet of the Miami defense is to keep the ball out of the middle and mitigate its shortage of size inside. When the Heat fails to, Williams is underlining exactly why they practice that principle. Boston’s bevy of excellent connective passers also pervades through his buckets.

Similarly, Williams has provided a welcomed lift to a merely adequate rebounding unit. Once assignments are shifted around as a result of Miami’s switching, Williams is routinely battling for boards against overmatched defenders. Or, his lively vertical pop and quick hands simply beat Adebayo (or multiple bodies) to the punch.

In this series, Boston’s rebounding rate jumps from 51.8% without him to 55.9% with him. He owns a distinct knack for inhabiting time and space to expose pockets of the defense. Miami’s personnel has allowed all those traits to flourish.

For all the value of Williams’ finishing and patrolling of the glass, his defense has perhaps been most integral to the Celtics’ success through four games. Adebayo’s scoring aggression drops considerably when Williams is out there. 

Per 100 possessions, the All-Star big man is logging 16.2 points, 7.7 shots and 1.7 assists alongside Williams. When Williams sits, those numbers hike to 24.0, 18.2 and 5.8 (NBA.com). 

By no means is it a coincidence that Adebayo’s only performance of the series with more than six field goal attempts or 10 points was Game 3 when Williams rested. He deserves credit for hunting his shot, but Williams’ Game 4 return, along with Horford’s exceptional showing, clearly helped dissuade him as a scorer.

Through much of Game 3’s first half, Miami, including Adebayo, diced up Boston’s switch-heavy approach by slipping screens. To counter that, the Celtics shifted to drop coverage late in the opening half. The Heat’s offense has suffered greatly since. 

On Tuesday, Williams’ status as a roamer against pick-and-rolls walled off the paint time and time again. Adebayo just had zero space to dive off screens 

In the 23 minutes Horford and Williams have played together this series, Boston holds a 94.1 defensive rating and a plus-26.0 net rating. The duo was especially impenetrable in Game 4. Williams is posing massive problems for Adebayo’s scoring comfort (shout out to Horford, too).

Adebayo is not the lone member of the Heat feeling the effects of Williams’ game. Though the sample sizes are small, Miami’s offensive rating is 15.6 points better (118.0 vs. 102.4) without him on the court.

A whole lot less room to maneuver exists when he’s out there.

Aside from some breakdowns on switches, a few pick-and-roll gaffes and occasionally being duped on a shot fake, Williams’ most pressing weakness against Miami is his availability. Dating back to the torn meniscus he suffered in late March, his status in the lineup has been mercurial. 

Yet his 67 minutes in these Eastern Conference finals have been truly game-changing. He crafts a two-way signature nobody else on the Celtics brings, which features a key role in bottling up one of Miami’s stars. 

Injuries and drastic game-to-game swings have defined much of this matchup for everyone. If Williams suits up at least twice more over the next three contests, Boston and its contingency should feel good about their chances. He’s playing excellent ball and impeding the Heat’s efforts at every turn.  

Design by Briggs Clinard.

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