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Why we watch(ed): celebrating the Celtics’ German phantom limb

Daniel Theis is the hero we didn’t know we needed.

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Celtics has become as much about paying attention to what’s happening on the court as it is about observing the strange hole left by the players languishing on the injury list. Despite Brad Stevens’ automaton quality of turning brittle tendons into lemonade, there’s a kind of eerie post apocalyptic vibe lingering as the Celtics wither into the postseason. The phantom roster lurks in the shadows, dancing and jeering behind every almost-win, every missed opportunity, reminding us, taunting us about what could have been, and what hopefully will be next season. (I suppose it’s in keeping with the adage that the Celtics are seemingly always a year away.)

There’s a great little story in Wait Till Next Year, “Can’t Repeat the Past? Why, of Course You Can” where William Goldman tunes into a Knicks-Celtics game. The VCR is rolling with the Knicks up 64-36 in the third, but the game starts to turn. The Knicks gradually fall apart at the hands of the one player he despises the most: Danny Ainge. After witnessing the Knicks’ lead slowly erode, likening the viewing experience to being unsuspectingly hit by a succession of waves until you find yourself gasping for dear air, he watches a tip in float over the basket in horror as the double overtime clock ticks out. Celtics 111. Knicks 109. Game Over.

But Goldman wouldn’t have it. Unhappy with reality -- why would anyone willingly choose to just sit there and suffer through its caprices? -- he chooses to pass on self-pity and replay the glorious 2nd quarter FOUR TIMES with a bottle of wine in hand, each time rejoicing at Ainge’s momentary ineptness…

One of the players I’ve found myself searching for on the court since the Great Decimation of March is Theis. Now relegated to the sidelines with an meniscus on the mend, Theis engages in sideline watching with as much fervor as he played with all season. It’s what you would expect from someone who mused about hoping to be able to taste his Christmas dinner despite suffering a broken nose.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I went back and watched the handful of games post All-Star break before the dreaded Indiana loss that halted the Celtics’ momentum, and Theis just never stops moving, making continual micro adjustments and forays into space. But it’s not useless flailing, or activity for activity’s sake. He’s got remarkable situational awareness on both ends of the floor.

Once upon a Media Day, Theis remarked that he didn’t merely move to get himself in good position, but that he did so in order to create space for others. He is a veritable perpetual motion machine, generating free energy for the rest of the team.

Here’s a prototypical example of Theis’ whirling dervish act

A lot has been written to demystify the walking contradiction that is Marcus Smart, but Mike Prada’s explanation remains the most insightful: Smart carries himself with the confidence of a deadly three point shooter, and because possessions unfold so quickly, defenses tend to knee jerk towards him, fooled by his confident posture. While Theis’ usage is fairly low, he does most of his work bending defenses by demanding they remain vigilant to his every movement. And unlike Smart, he usually makes good on his shot when the ball does come to him, sinking ~75% of them within 10 feet.

To think that the chatter when the Celtics signed him was basically Is this guy with funny hair and an accent better or worse than the guy we had last year with funny hair and an accent? is pretty hilarious in retrospect. There’s also the other stereotype that players who are groomed abroad have to contend with when making the transition to the NBA (namely, the “good feel” backhanded compliment, the equivalent of being described as being “nice”).

NBA: Boston Celtics at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Theis is not your regular international rookie. Nor is he an archetypal big man. On paper, Theis arrived from Germany capable of doing many desirable and often mutually exclusive things. See, for all of the Celtics’ fan base’s shrieking insistence about needing more bigs on the roster (some teams seem to find themselves in the same roster predicament year after year despite stark evidence of an unfulfilled need), the search for useful big men has gotten both easier and harder than it once was.

The generation of kids who grew up emulating KG has finally come to maturity. Garnett is not only Theis’ idol but also a significant causal variable in the NBA Big Man’s Renaissance. But the Renaissance is more mutation than carbon copy, a pollination between the defensively intimidating big, sprinkled with the range and dribble ability that’s usually the preserve of guards. Its arrival has retired both the stretch big whose lack of lateral quickness cracks open his team’s defense in the spread pick-and-roll, as well as the springy big who clogs the lane on offense*.

Theis is obviously no unicorn, but he does offer a pretty rare platter of traits. On the one hand, he boasts pick and pop range and an outside shot that’s already become more fluid as the season’s progressed, and the ability to grease ball movement and keep plays circulating from the post or above the break; on the other hand, he has the length, physicality, athleticism and drive to run the court and dive to the rim that makes him both the proficient rebounder and finisher that he is.

Theis’ value is most in focus when you watch his energy on defense…

...turn into advantages on offense.

I decided to play the game of overfitting a model to see who else fit the mold, and surprise, not a lot of players have the bag of tricks that Theis possesses. Are you ready? Here are all the players aged 25 or less in their first four seasons, who’ve attempted at least one 3-pointer (per 36), made at least 30% of them, and averaged more than 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2 assists (per 36):

NOTE: there are only three other names on that list, and they are serious names

Theis hasn’t just made the most of his minutes, he’s even managed to make a bit of a name for himself. And to think that this is the guy who once played in the Wizards 2014 summer league, had an absolutely criminal block, prompting Bradley Beal to take notice despite not knowing who the hell Theis was. There was the time when Hayward casually mentioned being jealous of Theis’ undocumented wingspan (which helps with plays like this and this), the recent episode of The Jump when the legendary Jackie MacMullan underscored just how big of a loss his absence, in particular, would be in the playoffs, Stevens’ shout to Theis as one of the guys Tatum should emulate when it comes to taking care of his body, and conversation around the league (much to everybody’s chagrin) about yet another Ainge find (which might actually appreciate in value as the league scrambles to thin their ledger to fit a more austere cap).

As we choke back a sob and soldier on, let’s remember what we’ll have to look forward to when the stars finally** align next year.

I can’t help but wince when watching the replay of Theis, injured, refusing to slow down, and running till the very end.

Sincerely, your fan club. xoxo

* Jonathan Tjarks wrote one of my favorite series last off-season documenting the rapidly evolving shape of the league and the players it rewards and obsolesces.
** Please pray for us, Sister Jean.

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