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Celtics monitoring Rob Williams’ conditioning before center makes long-awaited return


SAN FRANCISCO — Rob Williams looked like he was holding on to a secret, a sly grin emerging on his face Friday as he was asked how soon he thinks he could make his long-awaited return. It may have been a tease, but his time is coming any day now.

Though he hadn’t ruled it out at Friday’s practice, Williams did not make his return from left knee surgery for Saturday night’s primetime matchup against the Warriors. Eleven weeks since Williams’ surgery, the Celtics – who continue to boast the league’s best record – aren’t bringing their center back in an urgent manner as they monitor how he reacts to practice sessions like Friday.

“Just continuing to figure out how he bounces back from a physical and conditioning standpoint after each session, and then just making sure he’s comfortable,” Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said. “So we’re not going to rush. It’s all about how he feels and where he’s at, and kind of how he responds to each day. So he’s doing a good job working at that, and between him and us working together and making sure he feels comfortable with it, then I think he’ll be ready to go.”

Williams described himself as day to day at Friday’s practice and his return could seemingly come as soon as this week, but it’s unclear if he’s been physically cleared to return to games.

“It’s more about just making sure he’s in shape,” Mazzulla said. “On a physical standpoint, make sure he’s comfortable from an in-shape basketball standpoint, which is hard to get to when you’ve taken the time off that he has. So I think it’s more about that.”

When he inevitably returns, Williams will only add to the embarrassment of riches the Celtics have enjoyed to start this season. It’s no secret that the C’s defense – though it has been better of late – has been a step slow to begin the year. Without Williams – whose 102.3 defensive rating last season was by far the best on the Celtics – Marcus Smart said the C’s have had to play differently on that end. Williams is a security blanket for the Celtics’ perimeter defenders, a lethal shot-swatter and rim protector that they’ve sorely missed.

“You just have to be a little more conservative with things,” Smart said. “You gotta really, really, really, really time it up and pick your spots when you’re going to be really aggressive and things like that because we don’t have Rob in the back. So, teams understand that and they know that, so we just have to be cognizant and watch it.

“Without Rob, it’s definitely allowing guys like Sam (Hauser), who gets picked on a lot on the defensive end, to really have to buckle down and get some experience guarding people. And after that, that’s what helps us, me, Jayson, Jaylen, Malcolm, D. White, Grant and everybody else because now, we have to understand that there’s nobody protecting us, so you have to protect your own.”

Friday’s practice offered a glimpse of what’s coming in the near future. Williams, sporting a bulky left knee, looked strong and fluid in defensive drills as he closed down and swatted shots. During a 4-on-4 scrimmage that included end-of-the-bench players and assistant coaches, he jumped for lobs with no apparent limitation or hesitation.

Williams’ defensive impact is obvious, but while his return may affect the floor-spacing, shooting-focused emphasis that’s led to the Celtics’ league-leading offense, his unique ability to play above the rim promises to add another dynamic on that end, too.

“With adding him, it’s only going to push us back over the top,” Smart said. “We know the type of defender that Rob is, the type of player that Rob is, offensive player, the threat that he poses on defenses. It’s only going to help our game tremendously. It’s going to help us guard, be able to fill even more, be more comfortable with getting up on guys and pressuring them and wreaking havoc on the opposing guards. Rob is a special talent. We miss him, but we’re holding it down until he gets back.”

Horford’s status unclear

Al Horford missed his third consecutive game and second since entering health and safety protocols on Wednesday, but Mazzulla still didn’t have much information about his status.

“They haven’t given me an update as far as what it has been,” Mazzulla said. “He’s in health and safety protocols and just continuing to follow those and kind of see where it’s at.”

Pressed on if Horford is in San Francisco, Mazzulla said, “He’s in health and safety protocols.”

Warriors honor Russell

Bill Russell’s No. 6 was raised to the rafters at Chase Center before Saturday’s game as the Warriors honored the late Celtics legend. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, like many, deeply admired Russell and was even a bit starstruck of him early in his coaching career.

“I just remember being on stage with him in 2015 when we won our first championship. I was nervous to even say anything to him,” Kerr recalled. “He’s just one of those figures who were just revered across the NBA. …

“I never really saw him play. Read a lot about him and was in awe of what he accomplished. On the court, obviously, the greatest champion ever but even more so off the floor, what he had done in the civil rights movement. The way he carried himself with dignity but kind of this presence, this intimidating presence. Then when you cut right to the core of him, you could feel the empathy and the compassion and the strength. There’s a reason we’re retiring that jersey. There’s a reason the NBA is honoring him the way they are. One of the, maybe the most important figures in league history.”


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