Robert Williams’ injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, but there could certainly have been worse circumstances. Imagine what sort of mess the Boston Celtics would be in if they hadn’t acquired Daniel Thies at the trade deadline.
No disrespect to Enes Freedom or Luke Kornet, but neither are viable understudies in Ime Udoka’s defensive system. Luckily, we don’t have to dwell on the “what if’s” because Theis is with the team, and on Monday night, he showed why the Celtics can still be a competitive unit, and why their defensive calling card remains unchanged.
Nothing we saw from Theis against the Toronto Raptors was new. There was no groundbreaking revelation. However, we did get a timely reminder that the fifth-year big man is a capable defender, both around the rim and on the perimeter. And what Theis lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in versatility.
That has always been the (soon to be) 30-year-old’s M.O. - his ability to diversify a team's pick-and-roll attack, seal defenders and open up driving lanes, stretch the floor, and battle on the boards. Nobody is asking Theis to replicate what Williams provides the team, simply because it’s not possible to fulfill such a request, but rest assured, new wrinkles will form within the Celtics offense over the coming weeks, creases that rely on versatility.
We saw the early seeds being sown against Toronto, where Theis chipped in with a double-double on his first start since rejoining the team — 13 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, and an assist on 50% shooting from the field is more than anyone could ask from a back-up center, yet that’s exactly the sort of night we can expect moving forwards.
No player contested more shots than Theis, who had 19, 6 of which came on contested threes, only Grant Williams had more defensive box-outs, and nobody provided more points off of screen assists (7).
Toronto is a poor three-point shooting roster overall. Sure, they have a few guys who can light you up from deep, most notably Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, but for the most part, their damage is done in the mid-range and at the rim. You could see the Celtics were aware of the danger zones when guarding Toronto, which dictated that Theis spent the bulk of his defensive possessions either playing in drop or pinching in from the wings, but that didn’t stop him from closing out - or stunting - on shooters when the ball found itself being kicked back out to the perimeter.
These two plays came on back-to-back defensive possessions, but show the different ways in which Theis provided rearguard help. In the first clip, we can see the veteran center guarding the perimeter, staying in front of his man, nullifying the drive, and forcing the step-back jumper - you will live with that type of offense all day.
The second clip is more of a drop coverage, with Theis protecting the middle, but as the ball is kicked back onto the perimeter, the Celtics deputy stunts towards Pascal Siakam to apply pressure on the release. And here is one of the primary differences we’re going to have to adjust to: Theis doesn’t have the lateral quickness or burst of pace to fly by on a close-out, because if the shooter fakes and then puts the ball on the floor, Boston is at a disadvantage. So, Theis will stunt or contest, but it’s rare we’re going to see him attempt blocks on the perimeter.
Of course, we also saw the Salzgitter native provide solid help defense, and was more than capable of switching onto and staying in front of smaller players.
Offensively, Theis provided a typical performance, mixing how he attacked off pick-and-rolls, being a sturdy screener, and providing a body on the offensive glass, even if just to apply pressure.
However, against a Raptors team that likes to play up to touch on the screen, Theis found some success by delaying his roll to the rim. After setting a screen, the big man would work to get his defender on his hip before calling for a pocket pass and then attacking the lane.
As you can see here, Theis delays his roll by at least one Mississippi, which allows Derrick White to draw additional defensive attention before finding Theis with the pass.
While this was a neat little wrinkle to some of the Celtics' pick-and-roll execution, Theis’ bread-and-butter has always been operating in slip screens, especially if he manages to evade both the on-ball defender and big-man defender.
The shot might not fall here, but Theis does an excellent job of forcing the Raptors to send help defense towards the rim. As the veteran big continues to get more game reps, odds are that he starts finding the corner shooter when defenders close in on him like that, which bodes well for Boston’s drive-and-kick orientated scheme.
Overall, Theis, in his first game covering for Williams, was a valuable member of the rotation who stuck to his “no-frills” approach, played his game, and allowed the action to unfold. When covering for somebody, in any type of job, it’s easy to try and mimic what your counterpart does, especially in the opening shifts. But Boston’s newest deputy displayed great self-awareness and provided the team with his best effort and not some Timelord replicant.