The hottest team in the NBA Playoffs, besides the Miami Heat, runs a simple offense. Two of the league’s most dynamic shot makers in Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum dance around screens and can shots. Sometimes they’ll put the ball in the lane and kick to shooters on the wings like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Those players all receive credit. The screener initiating the action deserves his due, too.
Players like Daniel Theis become as important as the stars when super teams form. Those rosters, stretched financially at the top, need to catch a break from role players exceeding the expectations of their deals. Theis, an eight-year German pro undrafted in 2013, joined the ranks of Birdman Anderson, Harrison Barnes, Matthew Dellavedova, and Fred VanVleet as surprise contributors on elite teams. Those teams won titles and on Wednesday, the Celtics moved into pole position on 538’s championship odds.
Touted as Boston’s weak link due to his size, minimal star power, or skinny frame, Theis has become the x-factor in these Celtics exceeding expectations and helping position Boston to become the next great NBA team. He is signed for one more year, has helped Boston sweep the 76ers, and unloaded on Toronto with 13 points, 15 rebounds, a steal, and two blocks in a Game 1 performance that displayed his wide array of skills that take Boston’s offense and defense to a championship level.
If the Celtics did not have Theis, they do not get the best from their stars. The team’s loss of Al Horford becomes more noticeable without him, a departure that directly allowed Boston to re-sign Theis to a two-year deal for only $10 million. Nobody said Danny Ainge never got lucky. The Celtics’ height disadvantage, which prevents Boston from playing their “five best” with Gordon Hayward healthy, becomes more pronounced.
A 6’9” player like Theis would be dubbed a power forward in the 2000’s. In the modern game, his screens, rolling, back line cuts, secondary passing, and strength in the low post all exhibit characteristics of the perfect center. He’s hardly undersized today.
Only Anthony Davis is generating more points per possession on rolls this postseason than Theis (1.57 on 2.8 per game) among the top eight players in possessions. His first of Game 1 took advantage of Toronto’s desire to pinch the lane while covering Walker up top, allowing Smart to heat up early on the way to 11 threes in the first two games. Theis’ screens played a similarly devastating role in the Philadelphia sweep, as the 76ers dropped and allowed Walker and Tatum to shoot 49% around them.
Theis exposed Marc Gasol, a champion in the NBA and internationally, for his lack of mobility against such a spaced out offense. He blew by Gasol on the perimeter to take an 11-3 lead with an and-1 finish at the rim, drilling the free throw after and six more throughout the game. Theis shoots 75% at the line in his career, making the Celtics an impossible team to disrupt through fouling, with a 72% mark at the rim.
Gasol sits out on Theis for a reason, even as he shoots 22.2% from three this postseason after hesitating and missing twelve outside shots against Philly. Nonetheless, Brad Stevens, like he did with Smart and Aron Baynes, advocates the shot, so Gasol knows the career 34% three-point shooter warrants coverage. After an 0-for-2 Game 1, he splashed early with Gasol dropped in the second game.
Anyone will contend Theis represents a shift toward springier, spacing centers the league embraced going back to the start of last decade. He also never faces matchup-based limitations like Robert Williams, who sat for most of the first round series. Grant Williams only appears inside for short bursts on a matchup basis. Enes Kanter, a regular off the bench this year, didn’t play in Games 1 or 2 vs. Toronto.
Those other bigs limit Theis’ lone struggle: foul trouble. His bewildered face at a flurry of foul calls sparked a running joke between NBC Sports Boston’s Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine all season, many fouls stemming from body contact as he tries to utilize his length to contest shots around the rim.
Stevens pulled Theis early in Game 4 against the 76ers due to an early foul and turnover. He averages 5.0 fouls per 36 minutes (12th in the NBA), a mark he reached 13 times, but only fouled out of four games. That’s where height, and lack of notoriety, hurt.
Theis both affects and blocks shots, ranking ninth in block percentage (5% of two-point shots blocked in his floor time), in the same league as Kristaps Porzingis and Jaren Jackson Jr., while beating Rudy Gobert (4.8%). His most valuable attribute defensively, transition defense, came into play on both of his blocks on Sunday.
Stevens loves Theis’ ability to flat out get back. Whether he gets pummeled without a call or botches a shot, Theis sprints back to the other rim. He first moves his feet to pick up the three point line, while the early-arriving guards sit back, then seamlessly transfers back to the paint. It’s a critical component of what made Boston a top-five defense this year and held Toronto, who averaged 18.8 fast break points per game, to seven in Game 1.
The Celtics quietly court two former Defensive Players of the Year between Theis in the Euroleague, and Williams in the SEC with Texas A&M. Williams provides flashier, intimidating shot blocking. Theis wins the positioning game. Their combined 23 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks swung Game 1. The Raptors already give up the wing advantage in this series. If Toronto loses every game inside, they’ll get swept.
Fortunately for them, they found spots to win the rotational matchup against Williams in both games. He immediately yielded a pair of three-pointers to Ibaka in the second quarter. Kanter cannot get back on defense well enough in this series and Williams doesn’t always position himself in those instances, leading to Toronto’s best run in Game 1 (10-0).
Theis averages 24 minutes per game and the Celtics’ big depth depends on the night. Still, as their offense and defense emerge as a two-way force perhaps unmatched around the NBA postseason, Theis plays an important part of what could become the next “super team” in this league if its progression continues. He’s a legitimate top-10 center, and with four of the top 40 players in the league in front of him, Theis only widens the talent gap.
These aren’t bad 76ers and Raptors teams that Theis and his teammates have discarded for six straight games. The NBA is defined by its own form of the wealth gap. The 1% who the rest of the league struggles to hang with. The Celtics once sat on the border, just outside that group, looking up at powerhouses like the Cavaliers and Warriors. Now, through shrewd team-building and luck in the case of a Theis and Smart, they’ve joined them.