Narratives shape a season, providing talking points and guiding analytical discussions among fans and media. In Boston, the expected stories revolving around a lack of wing depth or the bench unit’s youthfulness are still prevalent. Yet, the primary focus has been something few envisioned before the season started: the two-big lineup.
Opening the year with a lineup consisting of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson raised a few eyebrows, while the on-court product eventually caused everybody to raise more than a few glasses. Questions began to surface regarding the lineup’s effectiveness and if it would continue once Kemba Walker returned to the fold.
As the team has gotten healthier with the returns of Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, Brad Stevens has been more inclined to run a modern offense with only one “big.” However, starting with one big does not mean the experimental Celtics coach won’t tinker with his rotations throughout a game, meaning we will still get treated to stretches of multiple big men roaming the court.
Luckily, Stevens seems to have stumbled onto a pairing of bigs that isn’t only passable but potentially exceptional. Against the Lakers, Stevens utilized Daniel Theis and Robert Williams in a rotational lineup, and the results were electric.
In eighteen minutes tonight, Theis/Timelord had a net rating of 19.9 (117.1 offensive rating, 97.2 defensive rating).— Bill Sy (@deliberatepix) January 31, 2021
Operating with Theis and Williams provides the Celtics with a versatile duo whose skill sets complement each other’s game. On offense, having both of these players sharing the floor ensures the Celtics have vertical spacing along with a reliable pick-and-pop threat, forcing defenses to pick their poison.
We can see the Celtics run a “leverage play” to get Daniel Theis an open look from deep. Typically, leverage plays are useful when the ball handler is a high-level scoring threat with an intimidating roll threat and a high percentage assassin from deep.
Theis is by no means a dead-eye from deep, but he is shooting the three at a highly respectable clip of 38.2% on two attempts per game this season.
The key to successfully running the above play is forcing the defense into a tough decision. When Robert Williams rolls hard to the rim, Marc Gasol drops while still staying positioned to deter an interior pass. But what about Anthony Davis? Well, he’s the one with the tough choice to make - does he pinch in to provide weakside rim protection or push up to challenge any attempt to feed Theis the ball?
Walker sells the interior pass, causing Davis to dig in an attempt to tag Williams, allowing Theis to receive the ball in shooting motion before firing away for an easy three.
There’s also the rebounding presence the duo provides on the glass, combining for a total of five offensive boards against one of the more physical defenses in the league.
The Celtics defense became a challenging proposition when Theis and Williams patrolled the paint together, posting an absurd defensive rating of 86.2 (minuscule sample size).
The first thing to note is the improved switchability provided by this lineup, a trait synonymous with a Brad Stevens-coached team. Both Theis and Williams possess great lateral quickness, providing them an ability to recover when beat off the dribble or if a cutter gets by them.
Couple that versatility with Williams’ ever-present block threat and the perimeter defense of Theis, and suddenly teams will begin to throw their game plans out the window.
Let’s ignore the careless outlet pass by Williams and focus on the switch that led to a crazy sequence of blocks.
Williams is matched up with Davis, who has set a back screen on Tatum. Dennis Schroder dribbles towards the baseline, and Williams switches onto him to defend the drive. Cutting off the driving lane, Williams forces Schroder into a jump shot, which the Celtics big then blocks. What comes next is a moment of lunacy which was as fun as it was frustrating.
While this iteration of the two-big lineup has seldom seen court time together (only 59 total possessions), its performance against the Los Angeles Lakers should provide optimism for the future.
It has become clear that Thompson and Theis are not a successful pairing, either offensively or defensively. Throughout the 206 possessions the “Double-T” lineup shared the floor, the Celtics were -6.6 in points differential, hemorrhaging 117.7 points per 100 possessions - good for the 19th percentile.
Since Gordon Hayward’s departure from the Celtics, it’s become abundantly clear that the team is thin on the wing, specifically the four. By utilizing the big-man duo of Theis and Williams, the Celtics can position Thompson as a defensive anchor off the bench while also allowing some of the younger wings developmental time in the rotation.
Currently, there’s far too small a sample size to make and definitive opinions about the longevity of Theis and Williams operating together. Still, in their audition, the duo wowed enough to get a golden buzzer.