At the end of the day, it was a 6-foot-8 center blocking a shot from a 6-foot-1 guard.
But as Celtics coach Brad Stevens explained, Daniel Theis’ block on Trae Young’s go-ahead 3-point attempt in the final seconds that preserved a 109-106 victory for Boston over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night at the TD Garden required much more than just getting his hand on the ball.
“I thought the best play of the fourth quarter was clearly Theis’ block,” Stevens said. “To have the wherewithal to take away the 3-pointer when they had no timeouts in a two-point game was outstanding. You see a lot of guys back up, be safe, those guards shake and raise and then they get a rhythm three and you lose a game. The worst thing that should happen in that situation is you go to overtime because he drives it to the rim. That’s a big-time basketball play.
“It sounds easy when we all sit here and talk about, but in the throes of the game, and knowing that Trae is capable of getting to the rim on anybody, that’s a huge, huge play.”
It seemed as though Stevens might ride the hot-hand of Enes Kanter, who notched another double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds, to the game’s conclusion, but with 1:28 remaining Stevens put the reliable Theis back onto the floor.
Theis delivered when the Celtics needed him the most as Young, who netted 28 points and had been 5-of-13 on 3-pointers up until his last-second attempt, got the matchup he wanted when a Kevin Huerter screen freed Young up from Marcus Smart with just under 10 seconds left.
Theis stuck with Young as he took a couple hard dribbles left and then Young got the separation he needed with a wicked crossover. Everything was calculating the way Young probably had predicated, except for what happened next.
Theis didn’t give up on the play and recovered in time with his arm outstretched to the fullest to not only bother the shot, but deny it from ever getting close to the hoop.
“As soon as I switched on him, I knew he would take the three to win the game because he made a bunch in the game,” Theis said. “Just tried to take away the shot. He probably would have beat me for a layup, but he just wanted the game-winner ... and I was right there to block it.”
If everything had gone according to plan, it would had been a shining highlight for the second-year guard out of Oklahoma as he tries to make his way up the NBA hierarchy. But what could have been was replaced with a tip of the cap to Theis.
“I went to drive and he was down to drive, then my step back was a little too slow and he was able to recover and make a good play,” Young said. “(Expletive) sucks, but he made a good play.”
Just a little over a minute earlier, Theis had another matchup with Young. The result was the same. With the Celtics also protecting a two-point lead at the time, Young darted toward the basket off of a pick-and-roll, but Theis followed the play all the way and sent Young’s layup attempt ricocheting off the backboard.
For Theis, who is averaging a career-best 1.5 blocks per game in his third NBA season, his interior presence, not to mention his efficient offensive game as he scored 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the victory, is vital for a team that many clamor needs another big to contend for an NBA title.
“We believe in Theis defensively and offensively and Theis has been doing big things and making big-time plays for us for a long time,” Smart said.
Theis’ game-clinching block put him deservedly in the spotlight. It felt like a simple play, but it was much more than that and Theis has meant much more to the Celtics than what they could have imagined.
Everything worked out in the end for Theis and the Celtics on this night, expect for one minor detail. The Celtics didn’t hand out a celebratory game ball liked Theis had hoped.
“It was fun. It was a good feeling,” said Theis of his massive block. “When I walked in I was asking for the game ball, but I didn’t get it. I just try to help the team.”