Boston Celtics center Robert Williams could feel the butterflies twirling around inside him well before he stepped onto the court for the first time this season with 7:03 left in the opening quarter Friday night against the Orlando Magic.
Williams, who had been sidelined since undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee in September, entered the game to a standing ovation from the home crowd and to a few thoughts dancing in his head.
“Just don’t mess up,” Williams told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “Just calm down a little bit, man. Don’t mess up. Find a way to help your teammates the best that you can.”
Williams wasn’t his sharpest, which was almost a given since he hadn’t seen game action in six months, but the 25-year-old delivered a solid performance with flashes of the added dynamic he can bring the Celtics.
While Boston didn’t put a minutes restriction on him, they did monitor Williams closely. He played 18 minutes off the bench and provided some of the highlight-reel plays fans are accustomed to seeing to notch nine points off the bench on 4-for-4 shooting — all of which were dunks — with five rebounds and one block.
Not being a bystander anymore gave Williams a great feeling, but his season debut was soured by the Celtics not feeding off his return and dropping a 117-109 decision to the lowly Orlando Magic, who came into the contest with the worst road record in the NBA.
“Just comfort, man,” Williams said. “The nerves were getting me pretty bad before the game. Just a sense of comfort, you know my teammates talking to me, having my back. Like I said, we lost man. It’s really no excitement about that honestly. We’re disappointed in ourselves.”
It didn’t take long for Williams to assert himself. Just over a couple of minutes into his first stint on the floor, Williams had a terrific sequence at both ends of the floor. First, he aggressively challenged a 3-point attempt by Terrence Ross to alter the shot and then he followed that up by slamming in a lob pass from Marcus Smart.
Williams said the alley-oop dunk put him more at ease after he was antsy early on by picking up three fouls in his first four minutes.
“I think it was the first dunk,” Williams said. “I think I just needed to catch a lob and dunk, to be honest. Just like a sense of comfort. I think after the first dunk, it was kind of like I could just breathe. Everything followed after that: intensity, effort.”
While Williams thought he was a step slow as he tried to get his rhythm back, Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla was encouraged by the Time Lord’s performance, especially on defense.
That’s where Williams should make the most impact as he gets up to speed with Boston’s offense already operating at historic levels. He’s a rim protector the Celtics don’t have as he was named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team last season when he recorded 2.2 blocks per game, a mark good for the second-best in the NBA.
Williams showcased his shot-blocking prowess from a help position early in the second quarter. With Mo Bamba trying to muscle Sam Hauser down low, Williams floated over and sent Bamba’s attempt flying into the stands.
And just like that, it felt like old times with Williams patrolling the paint.
“I thought he picked up where he left off as far as his weakside defense,” Mazzulla told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “I thought he did a good job (to have) a presence at the rim. And he just looked comfortable out there. I was happy for him.”