Derrick White and Robert Williams don’t care if they join Celtics starting lineup

BOSTON — Derrick White caught the ball twice on the weak side when the Clippers doubled Jayson Tatum and made crucial plays, driving for a three-point play against Kawhi Leonard and finding Grant Williams behind the arc to close out a 116-110 win. He’s played comfortably in his starting role, but isn’t guarding it tightly.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “You just got announced at the beginning. That’s the only difference.”

Robert Williams III sat as Al Horford and the starters closed the game, having done his job by pouring in 12 points around the rim, grabbing six rebounds and blocking a shot. His substitution off the bench has drawn nightly standing ovations from the TD Garden crowd.

Both said they’re fine with whatever role they play to finish the year. White has remained a starter with Williams III coming off the bench since returning. He’s shooting 80.8% on 26 shot attempts, grabbing nearly four offensive and defensive rebounds each and hitting 8-of-10 free throws. The Celtics have outscored opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions and posted 107.2 defensive rating.

Williams III played 21 minutes in the final game of the homestand, in line with his average since returning from September knee surgery, playing a roughly 7:30 burst in the first half, closing the final five minutes of the first half, final two minutes of the third quarter and the first four of the fourth. He gave about four minutes later in the frame. They’re longer bursts that point toward conditioning progress.

“S***, they just look at me and ask me if I’m good,” Williams III told CLNS Media/Celticsblog after Thursday’s win. “Basically, they check on me like every two minutes while I’m in the game and ask me if I’m good. I ain’t trying to come out. I felt good, felt good after a dub, like I said, I feel like we’re coming back together defensively.”

Head coach Joe Mazzulla wouldn’t say definitely whether Williams III will eventually return to the starting lineup and reunite with Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Horford, the league’s best lineup last year due to its stifling defense. They scored 118.8 points per 100 possessions compared to the 117.3 this season, a historic mark.

“We’ve been given, medically, the minutes that he should play,” Damon Stoudamire said on Thursday. “We just kind of play off of that. You can see Rob, to me, getting better each game. I thought last game he was able to play consistent time, for a longer period of time, and that was big for him. More than anything, as a team, we know we need him, but I think the biggest thing is he needs to be comfortable.”

Williams III hasn’t complained of pain or suffered any setbacks, only battling a non-COVID illness last weekend like much of the roster has in December. The brace he’s worn on his left knee hasn’t bothered him as much as he expected and only conditioning has really hampered him in the early December weeks leading up to and following his return. Williams III will try to catch his breath at the free throw line and after longer stretches of play, but he hasn’t asked out of games.

Once he reaches full form, it’s worth wondering if the Celtics play double big or five-out more often. Mazzulla has praised Boston’s ability to do both, but one will need to prevail for the majority of games. Horford and Williams III have shared the floor for 5.6 minutes per game compared to 14.9 minutes last year, when the Celtics won those stretches by 13.2 points per 100 possessions. They posted an astounding 89.3 defensive rating in February.

Horford believed the Celtics could regain their defensive identity once Williams III returned and they’ve climbed up to seventh overall and No. 1 with a 107.6 rating since his first game. They’re trying to balance that against an offense that’s slid to 19th this month, improving in recent weeks with Williams III’s acclimation to a more complex screening game, faster pace and spacing emphasis playing a small role in their regression.

White already has a feel for it and doesn’t care whether he starts or sits, doing both last season and likely taking any back court minutes in case of an injury or rest night. He’s a better screener than Williams III though, and Horford’s shooting and passing has keyed their ability to get both Brown and Tatum 70% looks at the rim and on the run. White’s +12.1 net rating leads the team, with a 118.2 offensive rating and 106.1 defensive rating.

“Are we gonna (start Rob)?” Mazzulla asked when a reporter assumed they would eventually. “I think it depends on what’s best for our team at the time, what’s best for him. We’ve fluctuated the starting lineup a little bit throughout the year, which has given us some flexibility, but we’ve found some consistency in what we have now and I think it’s just a matter of if it makes sense we’ll do it , and if it doesn’t, we won’t. It’s got nothing to do with (Rob’s health), it’s more what’s best for the team and where we’re at.”

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