BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics got their first taste of life without Rob Williams on Monday night, losing for the first time in two weeks. Granted, they also went without Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, so Monday night's defeat at the hands of the Raptors in Toronto could be chalked up as a "scheduled loss."
The tilt at Scotia Bank Arena was a mostly just a game that the Celtics had to play. Boston is much more interested in keeping the core healthy than wins over the final weeks of the regular season. And the Celtics -- or what was left of them -- still put up a solid fight, falling to the Raptors 115-112 in overtime.
Chances are if one of Tatum, Brown or Horford played Monday, the Celtics would have inched closer to clinching a playoff spot. That is merely a formality at this point, with seeding all that is left to be sorted out at the top of the East.
So on the second night of a back-to-back, and the first game following Williams' meniscus tear, Ime Udoka let his big hitters rest. But there was an extended look at Williams' replacements, albiet without Horford in the mix.
Udoka sent out a starting frontcourt of Grant Williams and Daniel Theis against the Raptors, both of whom will be playing bigger roles going forward in Rob Williams' absence. Williams saw 39 minutes of action and turned in 17 points with seven rebounds, though he looked a little gassed at the end of regulation when he dribbled a potential layup bid off his foot. Theis manned the center position for 41 minutes, the biggest work load he's seen this season between the Rockets and the Celtics, and gave Boston 13 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks. It was close to Rob Williams' usual line, minus the energetic dunks and demoralizing rejections.
Horford, Theis and Grant Williams are going to have the most on their plate without Rob's services. Boston has done its best to give Horford time off to keep him fresh for what the team hopes is a lengthy postseason run, but it will be up to Grant and Theis to give the Celtics quality minutes going forward to keep the weight of the frontcourt off Horford's shoulders. While acquiring Theis at the trade deadline was seen more as addition by subtraction, taking Dennis Schroder and Enes Kanter out of the mix, that pickup is looking even more important by the day.
Losing Williams is obviously a massive blow for a team that has been flying high since January. His impact will be missed just about everywhere on the floor. But the Celtics dealt with injuries and COVID absences for the first two months of the season, and believe that experience will help them now.
"For us, the advantage of that is we went 30-plus games without our full roster. We had to learn and adjust to play like that," point guard Marcus Smart said after Monday's loss. "It definitely is a hit to us, but we know Rob wouldn't want us to hold our heads. We have other guys who have been waiting for their turn if that's the case. That's just what it is. We have the advantage to be able to adjust and play without other guys and we'll just have to do it again."
"Obviously Rob has a huge impact on both ends of the floor. He can't be replaced with what he does and is unique in that aspect," added fellow guard Derrick White. "But we have Theis, Al and Grant, a bunch of people who can step up and do what we need them to do to win games. We have to have the 'Next Man Up' mentality and we trust those guys."
Trust is going to be the biggest factor going forward. Smart and Williams (and just about anyone who had the ball in their hand) had an almost sixth sense whenever Rob was around the basket, leading to countless "Lob Williams" appearances. We know that Grant Williams won't be getting those opportunities, and don't expect many lobs to the 35-year-old Horford. But Theis can rock the rim from time to time, harkening back to his days with Isaiah Thomas running the show for the Celtics -- though he's much more likely to get to the free throw line than sending a lob through the cylinder. It will get the Celtics points, but that psychological effect it has on opponents will be missing.
Replacing the Rob Williams void is going to take a group effort for Boston's remaining bigs, and unfortunately, they don't have much time to adjust before the postseason. The task will just get tougher when the Celtics shift to a series and their opponent can game plan for Boston and Boston only.
Ahead of Monday night's loss, Udoka seemingly left the door open for a potential Rob Williams return at some point in the postseason, depending on which surgery the big man elects to have in the coming days. But at this point, it's best to prepare for life without the big man, and the Celtics will use the final weeks of the regular season to adjust.
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