BOSTON — Daniel Theis isn’t even thinking about becoming Robert Williams III. Nobody on the Celtics thinks Boston can replicate what their long, versatile roving shot-blocker brings to the team on the defensive end. Nobody in the NBA brings the lob range Williams III does. His impact proved ancillary to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s scoring and playmaking, but became such a matchup problem for opponents that it allowed the Celtics to build 18-point per 100 possession advantages over the past month with him on the floor.
“Nobody does what Rob does,” Theis told CLNS Media on Friday. “His rim protection, playing way off the rim helps the whole team, just in case there’s a mistake, having him as a rim protector right behind you is different. I don’t think there’s anybody in the league who can do the things he does. … we just have to step up, everybody … being protective back there, being vocal, (keeping) the defense together.”
That’s proven to be the most significant issue since Williams III exited the starting lineup. Connectivity. As much as the Celtics miss Williams III’s unique traits, the string he defended on with his teammates might’ve been the more costly loss. Especially as Ime Udoka balances rest and seeding while trying to reshape his rotation. There are four games remaining after Boston beat the short-handed Pacers, 128-123, on Friday, raising the question of whether the Celtics’ new rotations have enough time to get on the same page.
The team also faced lurking crunch time issues that reared their head in Wednesday’s loss to Miami. Boston is likely to face those situations more often since the team’s margins shrink without Williams III.
Grant Williams started and struggled in Wednesday’s loss, before Theis replaced him to give Udoka a look at different combinations. Al Horford and Theis gave the Celtics 27 points, 18 rebounds and six assists on 12-for-16 shooting on Friday, luxurious depth for a team that didn’t dive into the tax. The Celtics have enough inside to compete and build leads. They’ll reach them in unfamiliar game plans and lineups. So it’s now about repetitions.
Boston dropped Horford more often against the Heat, switched less overall and their perimeter players faced a great onus at keeping the offense in front of them without their security blanket of Williams’ shot-blocking behind them. Tatum noticed Boston’s issues against Indiana coming on the perimeter, while Marcus Smart previously mentioned Williams III allowed them to play more aggressively in those spots.
The Celtics aren’t likely to replicate how Williams III played off of wings to help in the, though it’d be intriguing to see if Theis could at least pinch the lane with Horford against weaker opposing shooters the way Boston had done before.
“Obviously, Rob does a lot of stuff for us defensively,” Derrick White told CLNS this week. “Stuff that really no one in the league does. So there’s really no replacing him, but just being in the right position, staying with the right mindset we have and being physical. Theis does a great job around the rim and Al is always physical with people, so we got people who can step up and make up a little bit for his absence.”
Rick Carlisle felt the same way after Tatum, Brown and Smart made enough plays late to hold off his Pacers. He told CLNS Boston still has enough to advance in the playoffs, and they’ll probably need to do that without Williams III even on the early end of his 4-6 week recovery timeline. Williams III talked to reporters and reflected the team’s positivity about his outlook, beginning double sessions at Boston’s facility on Thursday after his surgery on Wednesday.
The fact that the Celtics are struggling speaks to a timing issue more than a personnel one. Thursday’s trip to Milwaukee could become a rest day on a back-to-back and Theis is playing some of his first regular minutes next to Horford despite being his teammate from 2017-19. Theis said he feels familiar with all of his teammates due to that history, save for White. Boston’s defense appears disconnected anyway, flashing mistakes the group hasn’t made in months.
“We’ll go kinda double big there,” Udoka said. “Taking a look at Daniel and Al together, how that works. And then Derrick as well with certain combinations. So we want to be more crisper than we were offensively, and then, defensively, get back to our standard.”
White and Theis ran into some challenges on lob placement in their first run together with the second unit. White went low before Theis reminded him he can catch lobs too. Not quite Williams III, Theis can mirror the big man’s impact.
He’ll play above the basket, give his playmakers an outlet for pocket passes and rolls to the rim while rebounding at a high level. Theis also sets solid screens and can run delayed pick-and-roll away from the ball. The more seals we see, the more fun we’ll all have. Tatum must love getting to play next to him again, as they flash obvious chemistry.
The key differences come in how often Theis fouls, combining for eight with Horford in Friday’s win. He receives an infamously tough whistle. The physicality of a Bam Adebayo and even Goga Bitadze can bother him, another reason to keep the two Boston bigs on the floor together. Williams’ minutes quietly ranked in the 91st percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass, in terms of limiting opposing free throws (-3.5 impact on opp. FT rate).
Horford and Theis can, however, both shoot threes and put the ball on the floor in spots, posting a 125 offensive rating in their first 18 minutes together. The vertical spacing, transition opportunities and extra possessions Williams III generates will be missed, but they shouldn’t miss a beat offensively, particularly if Theis allows their second unit to remain intact. Payton Pritchard and Grant have hit 6-for-25 slumps from deep since the Williams injury.White woke up with a 38.5% three-point bump over his last six games.
On Friday, White landed that awaited, perfectly placed alley-oop to Theis. The Celtics looked on-point offensively. For a group that prides itself on defense, discussions about communication breed hope that the defense can be fixed. That’ll take time. Do they have enough? There’s a chance for a group that’s learned fast under Udoka.
“It’s a few games in a row now that we haven’t been as sharp as we need to be with the switching, Udoka said. “That was a little bit more of a thing tonight, just like last game,”