The Celtics have been filling holes early this season. With Kemba Walker and Romeo Langford rehabbing injuries and Gordon Hayward in Charlotte, Brad Stevens been equal parts plumber and NBA head coach. Rookie Payton Pritchard, the 26th pick in last month’s draft, has surprisingly been an effective third guard. Grant Williams, who was supposed to be the second unit’s glue guy, has often appeared lost on defense (which was supposed to be one of his strong suits).
While some players are dealing with more responsibility, one player from last year’s team has had to completely learn a different position on the fly. Daniel Theis started 64 or 65 games last season as the fifth Beatle of a star-studded lineup. While his four teammates nearly all averaged 20 points per game, Theis was often the invisible man, perfecting his patented screen-and-seal and fighting a war with no end in sight.
This year, he’s not been tasked to do more, but instead, to do different. With the addition of Tristan Thompson, Stevens has shifted Theis to power forward in his two-big starting lineup. Theis’ production has decreased slightly (three fewer points, two fewer rebounds), but more so, his role has changed. Theis isn’t exactly a shooting big (33.5% 3FG%), but more so than the ground-and-pound Thompson, so Theis has often found himself camping out in the corners and attacking above the break.
There was a play in Tuesday’s game that--while perfectly awesome--showed just how different Theis’ role has changed since moving to the 4. When was the last time we saw DT with the entry pass to another big on the floor, cut to the basket from the sideline, and attack the rim?
But against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, Theis went back to his familiar role.
With Thompson out on the back end of a back-to-back still nursing a right hamstring injury, Stevens opted to start Jeff Teague in his place and move Theis back to center. After Tyus Jones raked down on Theis thumb in a first quarter scare forced him to briefly leave the game, he returned to the floor and showed just what fans have come to love from the German big man.
Here’s Theis not only outrunning his man in transition, but pulling off his seal on the fast break, grabbing the offensive rebound, and getting the and-1 on a hustle putback.
After the game, Theis said that he’s still learning to play opposite Thompson as more of a stretch-4, but that center is his natural position where he knows his spots.
When asked about the difficulties of moving to a different position, Theis said, “seeing the game different. At the 5, you sprint down the court down the middle and get to the rim. Now, with two bigs, I gotta see if Tristan is down there, I gotta find my spot, and stay in the corner, be a spacer, cut more off the ball.”
Watching Theis against the Grizzlies was like watching your dog unleashed at the dog park. There’s a freedom and instinct in his movement that’s been missing for the first four games of the year. There will be other days and moments in games when Theis gets run at the 5, but he also recognizes the benefits, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, of playing alongside Thompson.
“Being out there with two bigs, we should be a really really good defensive team, being physical, getting rebounds,” Theis said. “I may not be directly involved in the pick-and-roll stopping the ball, so I need to see on the help side where my man is and play more off ball defense rather than being on the ball as a pick-and-roll defender.
That’s a little adjustment but I’m enjoying it, trying to get better in every game in it. The season is long, so I got time to improve and hopefully fast, but today I got a little rhythm, being me again, and hopefully that will carry over.”