Celtics’ 8-time champion compares Robert Williams’s shot-blocking to Bill Russell’s

Celts

Williams was second in the league in blocked shots this season, which reminded Satch Sanders of what his old teammate would do.

Robert Williams’ shot-blocking ability draws comparisons to all-time greats. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Robert Williams made a name for himself in his fledgling NBA career by playing with his bounce.

The 6-foot-9 Celtics center has a 40-inch vertical that has helped him reach 12 feet in the air to make blocks in an NBA game. Williams broke out this season, his first full season as a starter. He recorded 2.2 blocks in 29.6 minutes per game and ranked second in the league in blocks per game.

Former Celtic Satch Sanders, who won eight titles in his 13 seasons with Boston, compared Williams to one of his teammates and one of the greatest players in defensive history: Bill Russell.

When asked in a recent interview with Andscape’s Marc J. Spears, Sanders shared that Williams was able to achieve the greatest athletic play he’s ever seen from Russell.

“Three blocked shots on defensive possession,” Sanders said of a play Russell once made. “This young man [Robert] Williams, now with the Celtics, he has that ability. But I don’t know if he can. You have to be driven a bit. Russell blocked a shot in the air after the shot went up. He then blocked another shot on the other side of the rim. Then the ball went to the foul line. A guy tried to do a little jump shot and he blocked it. Three shots.”

Russell has often been considered one of the best – if not the best – shot blockers in NBA history. Unfortunately for Russell, the NBA didn’t start recording blocked shots until 1973, four years after the Celtics legend retired.

But several NBA players from the 1960s have shared stories of Russell’s defensive prowess. Sanders recalled the first time he watched Russell play at a College All-Star game at Madison Square Garden. Sanders, who was in high school at the time, watched Russell defensively impose his will on another future Celtic teammate of his.

“Russell laughed [Tommy] Heinsohn, because when USF first played Holy Cross, Heinsohn tried to be tough,” Sanders told Spears. “When the referee tried to throw the ball up, he caught Russell in the body. Heinsohn scored about six or eight points. Russ hunted down Heiney everywhere. At one point, Heinsohn fired from the corner and Russell went out and grabbed the shot from mid-air. He just played his ass off because Heinsohn tried to bully him. There was an error.

“Then at dinner, Heinsohn comes into the room and Russell says, ‘Hey, nice to see you, the Holy Cross terror!’ You know how Russell can laugh. That was the first time I thought, ‘Damn, that’s a cold S—’. With every shot that Heinsohn tried, he stood up. This man was there. I’ve seen serious defending, boys chasing, their s- pulled out of thin air. Russell was young. He was angry because people chose Russell over players despite USF [went] unbeaten two years in a row.”

Williams and the 2022 Celtics are trying to make their mark alongside the likes of Sanders, Russell and Heinsohn. Boston is currently tied 2-2 against Golden State in the NBA Finals.

Sanders, who played power forward, named two perimeter players as his favorites with the Celtics but told Spears why Williams is important to this Boston team.

“I like Jaylen a lot. I like the combination of Jaylen and Smart. They’re my favorite players,” Sanders said. “I would like to see all the guys I like have fulfilled their potential. One of the keys, of course, is a young man [Robert] Williams if he causes a bit more offence. Sometimes he’s 4.5 feet from the tire and you pass out. I hear media people talking about how wonderful it is to pass the ball for a 3 point shot. I think there has to be an effect on the inside too.”

Williams has been dealing with an injury for the entire postseason after undergoing surgery to mend a torn meniscus in his left knee in late March. The injury hampered Williams’ game during the Celtics’ run to the Finals, forcing him to miss six games and making him look limited in several others.

But Williams is starting to make his mark in the 2022 NBA Finals. In Game 3, he had eight points and ten rebounds while making multiple hustle plays to record four blocks and three steals in 26 minutes to help the Celtics win. He looked just as great in the Game 4 loss, scoring seven points, catching 12 rebounds, giving four assists, blocking two shots and recording a playoff-high steal in 31 minutes.

It’s starting to look like the Celtics will need Williams’ presence in the paint to clinch their 18th title, which would be the most in NBA history. The Celtics face off against the Warriors again for Game 5 in San Francisco on Monday, where the winner is just one win away from becoming champions.

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