Is Daniel Theis the key to Banner 18?

The Celtics dropped their first game of the NBA restart to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday 119-112. The referees were a large topic of discussion as there were a few questionable calls, as well as some even more questionable non-calls. All I’m saying is that Giannis Antetokounmpo should have fouled out twice. Anyways, that’s not the point of discussion here.

After watching that game, it’s clear to me that there is one man who is the key to winning basketball games for Boston. It’s not Jayson Tatum, who had arguably the worst game of his career. The Celtics still only lost by seven despite this performance. It’s not Marcus Smart, who had an outstanding game, but just couldn’t quite energize the Celtics enough to bring home a win. It’s not Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, or even Jaylen Brown. The man who has the success of the Celtics resting on his shoulders is none other than Daniel Theis.

That may sound a bit dramatic, but I completely stand by that statement. If you’re someone who considers yourself a fan of the C’s, but might not watch every game, that’s fine! Nevertheless, it’s those people who tend not to notice how vitally important Theis is to this team. I even wrote about it back in June on my own blog.

Coming into the season, most people projected Enes Kanter to get the start at center for Boston. To be honest, if he didn’t start the year off injured, he just might have been. However that was all the opportunity Theis needed to show that he belongs in the starting lineup. Thus far this season he’s averaged 9.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks. While that may not seem like much on the surface, as I stated before, Theis’ value is only truly shown by watching him play. Friday’s game against Milwaukee was a perfect example of that.

MORE: Takeaways from Celtics vs. Bucks

As I watch every Celtics game, I take some notes on certain things I can pull from the game and write about. On Friday I wrote the name “Theis” 25 different times – more than any other player besides Smart. 

Speaking of Smart, outside of him I would say that Theis hustles more than anyone else on the C’s. If a ball is in the air, expect to see Theis fighting for the rebound regardless of if the Celtics are on offense or defense. There were a couple possessions that I remember watching where I assumed the Bucks would get the board, and then Theis came out of nowhere and battled.

On top of that, his ability to stretch the floor is so important for Boston. He’s shot 32.2% from behind the arc, but that’s all that the Celtics need from him. Theis shot 2-6 from deep on Friday night. Although shooting may be what makes Theis so versatile, I would say his biggest strengths are screening, sealing, and defense. 

A lot of Brad Stevens’ favorite plays to run this year have to do with a player using a Theis screen to get open. Typically he runs to the top of the key, sets a screen for the ball handler, and either rolls or fades to create space.

Whether it’s Walker getting an open three or Hayward getting to the mid range for a leaner, Theis’ screens are essential to Boston’s offense. In fact, Theis’ 4.1 screen assists per game ranks 14th in the NBA (minimum 40 games played), and compared to all the players above him he plays significantly less minutes per game, too.

Working in tandem with his screens are Theis’ elite seals. For the most part when Theis rolls off a screen, it’s in order to seal off the defender in the paint. First, Theis screens the player who is defending the ball handler, putting him behind in the play. Then as his teammate is driving to the hoop, Theis boxes out whoever he was matched up against creating an easy layup for the Celtics. It’s a play that Theis is more or less famous for in Boston at this point.

MORE: Celtics bench players in line for more minutes

Lastly, Theis’ defense is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked parts of his game. He’s a little undersized for the center position, but makes up for it with a great defensive IQ. Theis can stick with any center in the league in the post because of this, and still manages to get blocks because he just knows when to jump. He can even go out on the perimeter and be effective against guards. I’m not saying he’s Kawhi Leonard or anything, but him being undersized gives him a leg up on most other centers when forced to guard the perimeter. 

Despite this great defensive ability, Theis is still one of the most picked on players in the league. He ranks seventh in the NBA in fouls per game, but if you watch Celtics basketball, you would know that some of the whistles against him are debatable to say the least. Even if Theis jumps straight up with two hands in the air, if the player driving acts like he got hit it’s going to be called a foul. Just the other night there were some tough calls against him as he fouled out of the contest against Milwaukee.

What makes matters worse is that apparently people can foul Theis all they want and still not get called! (If you watched Giannis Antetokounmpo punch him in the groin on Friday, you’ll understand my frustration). As soon as Theis manages to earn the respect of NBA officials, the Celtics will be able to play at a whole new level.

All complaints aside, Theis is genuinely the glue for this Celtics team. Boston can put as many scorers on the floor that they want, but without Theis’ hustle, screens, and defense, they’re going to struggle. He finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks against the Bucks in the Celtics’ Orlando opener, and I really hope he can keep giving Boston those kinds of great performances.

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Categories: Analysis


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