ATLANTA — Before Robert Williams walked over to meet reporters at the Celtics’ team hotel on Saturday, Joe Mazzulla apparently had a quick message for him.
“Yeah, get a MF’n rebound,” Williams said. “Yeah, get a rebound.”
It was further evidence that rebounding remains the Celtics’ No. 1 emphasis as their first-round series against the Hawks continues. The message was as important as ever just hours after their Game 3 loss on Friday night, when the Hawks crushed the Celtics on the glass with a 48-29 rebounding edge.
Williams didn’t mince words on why that happened.
“Honestly just a team lack of effort,” Williams said. “Can’t really blame it on anything. Rebounding is all effort, all physicality. 50/50 balls, you know, just looking to step that up. …
“I feel like they’re putting an emphasis on physicality, which they’ve been beating us this whole series, if you ask me,” Williams added. “And it’s something we’ve been putting an emphasis on.”
The Hawks didn’t miss much on Friday – they finished shooting 56 percent from the field – but when they did, they were again all over the offensive glass. They had 11 offensive rebounds, which they converted into 23 second-chance points – which created a big difference in an eight-point loss.
There have been sequences throughout the series in which the Celtics have given up multiple offensive rebounds. At times, they’ve looked frustrated. But Mazzulla said they have to work through it.
“You just gotta work to get the rebound,” Mazzulla said. “Grab it with two hands. It’s an underrated skill. But there’s a lot of situations where if we just go for it with two hands, it’s a 50/50 ball, we just have to get it. … Our guys are working at it, but we have to work harder on it, gotta be better with it, we have to be more intentional with it.”
Grant Williams didn’t play in Games 1 and 2 of this series. He didn’t know if he’d play in Game 3. But when assistant coach Tony Dobbins came over to him on the bench midway through the first quarter to tell him he was in, he was prepared.
Williams drilled a corner 3-pointer on his first offensive possession, then continued to make positive plays throughout the night. He forced a steal. He drew a charge. He grabbed an offensive rebound and got fouled. He finished with 14 points on 4-for-4 shooting from 3 as he produced another professional performance given his uncertain individual circumstances.
“You just try to stay positive,” Williams said. “The biggest thing is just making sure that you are focused on the ultimate goal, that’s winning a championship. Making sure that you are caring for your teammates, showing that love for them, that was my biggest thing. I didn’t want my situation to affect what this team was doing, I wanted to make sure everyone was prideful, happy and able to play freely. So when I subbed in, I tried not to mess with their flow and did what I was told to do.”
Williams’ minutes have not been promised throughout the second half of the season as he’s fallen out of the rotation. Those minutes become even more uncertain in the postseason as rotations shrink. But Williams has come up big for the Celtics in the playoffs before – like Game 7 against Milwaukee last season – and if Game 3 is any indication, he’ll continue to be ready for those moments.
“I’ve always tried to be that for this team and as a player,” Williams said. “Frustrated we didn’t get the win tonight but I just got to keep my head. If I don’t play on Sunday, I’ve got to do the same thing and be there for my teammates. If I do, then just go out there and play the game the right way.”
If and when the Celtics get by the Hawks, it will set up a second-round showdown against the rival 76ers, who completed a sweep of the Nets on Saturday. But Philadelphia may be without MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid to begin that series. Embiid missed Saturday’s game with a sprained right knee, and 76ers coach Doc Rivers said it’s “probably 50 percent, at best” that his star will be ready for the start of the second round.
“From my understanding, they checked his knee out right after the game because he was complaining about some soreness behind the knee,” Rivers told reporters prior to Philadelphia’s Game 4 on Saturday, “which is always a scary thing to hear about with players. There was swelling already, which is way too early, so we did the MRI.”