Brad Stevens has spent the entire 2020 playoffs constantly fluctuating the center minutes behind Daniel Theis. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Enes Kanter was the guy to help keep Joel Embiid from the rim. Versus the Toronto Raptors, Robert Williams III was tasked to follow Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka out to the 3-point line.
Whether it was executing responsibilities to stymie Miami’s surplus of hand offs and cuts or lunging at Kelly Olynyk beyond the 3-point line, Grant Williams was the logical choice to sub for Theis, leaving Kanter to cheer from the sidelines.
And yet, there Kanter was, subbing into Game 2 at the 7:29 mark of the first quarter. There were no injuries. Nobody was in foul trouble. Stevens gave Kanter a chance to tip the scales in Boston’s favor in ways only he can, and the big man gave his coach something to think about with nine points and six rebounds in under 11 minutes.
On just his second trip down the floor, Kanter found himself in a matchup with Duncan Robinson, who did his best to front to take away an obvious mismatch. Kanter did a good job clearing space to create the perfect opportunity deep on the left block. Even better, he’s on the move as soon as he catches, avoiding a double team with a single dribble that allowed him to finish unbothered on the right side of the rim.
He found a similar mismatch early in the second after getting ahead of Miami’s entire defense, leaving Goran Dragic to offer whatever resistance he could. Andre Iguodala saw this and came to help before Kanter could even catch the ball on the low block.
Kanter could’ve passed out to Marcus Smart in the corner for a reset. Instead, he cleared out Dragic just a bit with his left shoulder. Along with a gap left in the double by Iguodala, Kanter showcased the patience and footwork to nimbly split the two defenders and finish for an easy layup.
If he’s not setting a screen, limited range restricts Kanter to a few feet beyond the restricted area. Though a space clogger, doing so gives him the chance to punish those who can’t possibly match his strength.
Of the top-20 players in offensive rebounds per game during the regular season, nobody played fewer minutes than Kanter’s 17.0 a game — he ranked 16th. He’s a physical menace who knows how to use his wide frame to clear out the necessary space.
In the play below, Jayson Tatum drives from the right wing before letting go a left-handed layup that smacks off the backboard and misses all of the rim.
Though Kanter was already in an ideal spot by the time Tatum put the ball on the floor — behind Olynyk — he established further position by sealing Olynyk out of the restricted area with a good old fashioned box out. Even while facing a triple team, Kanter is still able to turn over his left shoulder and drop in a soft right-handed floater while getting fouled.
When Kanter started the second quarter, Boston was up 33-28. By the time he subbed out at the 6:53 mark, the Celtics had outscored Miami 13-9 and a five-point lead had nearly doubled to nine.
Though not a definitive correlation, Kanter helped the Celtics’ cause in the way he always has: by carving out space near the basket in ways modern defenses that sacrifice size for skill can’t handle.
As well as he played at the offensive end, defensively was a different story. It always has been for a player as limited as Kanter.
Bam Adebayo converted four lobs in Game 2. It’s not a coincidence that half of them were tossed directly over Kanter’s head. The verticality Robert Williams brings was sorely lacking, and Miami took advantage with well-placed passes that whisked by the flat-footed Kanter.
The Heat scored 11 points in the 9.2 partial possessions Kanter matched up with Adebayo, seven of which came from the All-Star big man himself in just the third quarter.
Adebayo had gotten loose for four uncontested dunks through the first six minutes and change of the third quarter. He dove to the rim and met little to no contest from any Celtic defender, so the Heat continued to run the two-man game and send Bam in a line drive to the bucket.
In the ensuing timeout following Adebayo’s fourth slam, why Stevens felt that was the appropriate time to sub Kanter back into the game is beyond conventional wisdom. The Celtics were up four at the 5:11 mark. When Kanter subbed out with 2:46 left, Bam had a dunk and two layups — including an and-one and the Heat outscored Boston 7-4 to cut the lead to one.
There’s no ideal matchup for Kanter, but stationing him in front of a boulder that’s picked up plenty of speed down hill is a mistake Stevens has to know better than to make.
The Celtics are down 0-2, but they lost by a combined eight points between Games 1 and 2. That’s a tough lens for Stevens to evaluate where on the scale — from subtle to drastic — he wants his pending adjustments to land. That includes what to do with Kanter and everything he brought when called upon, good, bad or otherwise.