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Celtics center Rob Williams throws down lob in practice as return appears imminent


SAN FRANCISCO — As Celtics practice neared its conclusion early Friday afternoon at the University of San Francisco, Rob Williams found himself in his natural habitat: Above the rim.

The Celtics center – playing in a 5-on-5 scrimmage with some players and assistant coaches – took a dribble up the court and passed it to Payton Pritchard as they entered the half-court. Williams then ran across the court as if he was about to set a screen before taking an arc toward the hoop, where he found himself completely uncovered. Pritchard dribbled into the lane before lobbing it to Williams, who ferociously slammed it with ease with his right hand.

It’s a scene that could play out in a real game soon. Friday marked 11 weeks since having left knee surgery to remove loose bodies and address swelling after suffering a torn meniscus in the knee last March, and his return seems to be imminent.

Could he be back this week when the Celtics visit Los Angeles for games against the Clippers and Lakers?

“Day to day,” Williams said. “It’s a possibility of anything. Day to day.”

How about Saturday night’s NBA Finals rematch against the Warriors? Williams responded with a smile.

“Day to day,” Williams repeated. “I think that’s what I said.”

Friday also marked the Celtics’ first team practice in at least a month – they finally got an extra off day in between games – and it was another chance for Williams to assess where he is in his recovery. Realistically, his return won’t come against the Warriors. The team wants to see how his knee reacts after Friday’s practice, and he hasn’t done a lot of work with the starters yet. But his progress, which has so far included no setbacks, continued to be encouraging.

“He looked good,” Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said. “He looked like Rob.”

“It’s a day to day process,” Williams added. “We’ve checked off many of the boxes that I had to check off.”

One of the most important boxes to check off, it seems, is Williams’ comfort level. When he resumed some basketball activities more than a month ago, he admitted there was some nervousness about how his knee would react as he started workouts and building up again. He’s wearing a massive brace to protect his knee, which has taken time to adjust to but not as bad as Williams thought.

“The most important thing for Rob is that he’s comfortable where he’s at from a physical conditioning standpoint and a mindset standpoint that he’s comfortable out there and that it’s going to go well for him,” Mazzulla said. “I think the most important thing is where he’s at and how he feels and so he’s continuing to work at it, and when he’s ready, he’s ready. …

“I’m comfortable with everything,” Mazzulla added. “I think he’s had a great mindset toward his rehab. He’s had a great mindset toward coming back, and he’s doing all the things we’re asking him to do. It’s just a comfort level for him to kind of see where he is.”

There’s a growing excitement about Williams’ return, but it’s not necessarily urgent. The Celtics boast the league’s best record at 21-5 and can afford for Williams to take his time.

“We’re very excited for him, but obviously at the same time, we want him to take his time,” Marcus Smart said. “There’s no rush right now really for him to be back. We’re doing pretty good, and the more rest we can give him and let him get more strength back in the knee and conditioning back up is only going to help us in the long run. We’re excited for him to be day to day, but definitely telling him to take his time and there’s no rush. We’re happy to see him out here, doing the things that he’s doing.”

When Williams does return, it’s likely the Celtics will bring him along slowly. The C’s will work together to determine what makes sense as the center returns to game action for the first time since June.

“He’s good because he has a humility about him and understands he’s such a team player and just wants to help us win,” Mazzulla said. “So it’s just a matter of from the (sports) science department, what should he come out and be playing to begin with? How does he feel throughout the game? And, where is his conditioning level at? So we’ll definitely ease him back into it, but anything he brings, he’s going to help us, just because of how good he is and what he brings to the table.”

Both Williams and the Celtics are being as smart as they can, knowing how important the center is to their championship goals this season. But naturally, Williams’ patience is wearing thin. He’s been on the bench for most games over the last month and he wants to be on the floor.

“I’m having so much fun watching these guys play,” Williams said. “It’s tough to sit there and watch it and feel like you’re not a part of it. …

“I”m way more eager. Way more eager. That’s just the love for the game. It doesn’t die.”


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