NBA pro Daniel Theis of the Boston Celtics: The best dirty worker

Shaquille O’Neal liked what he saw. But who he was seeing he didn’t know.

“This boy,” said the basketball legend on TV station TNT, “I don’t know his name. But he reminds me of Birdman.”

It was the semi-finals of the Eastern Conference, game five between the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors, when O’Neal’s knowledge of the name failed. Birdman is Chris Andersen, a former NBA center who lost the final to Golden State in 2017 with Cleveland at LeBron James’ side. And “this boy” is: Daniel Theis.

The fact that O’Neal doesn’t know Theis’ name is a symbolic anecdote: The German basketball player is the unsung hero of the Boston Celtics – and the NBA’s most underpaid center.

“Theis plays amazingly all season,” said Jason Tatum, the Celtics’ main player after Boston defeated the Raptors in seven games. The Conference Finals are now against the Miami Heat – the Celtics lost their first game last night. In the further games, a lot will depend on Theis, especially defensively.

From substitute to central figure

Boston had actually signed Theis as a substitute. In the summer of 2017 he came from Bamberg. He should bring energy from the bank, plow for a few minutes, protect the starters. Not more. Three years later, the 28-year-old has risen to become a central figure in coach Brad Stevens’ system both on the offensive and on the defensive – without being statistically noticeable. Theis currently scores 9.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the playoffs. Seldom do the common metrics say so little about a player’s worth.

Theis is the man for the rough, for the dirty work. He rubs himself up, does all the little things that are not statistically recorded, but are immensely important for the success of his team. He stands out as a smart and agile defender who can hold smaller opponents in front of him, give commands and help out his teammates when they are defeated while dribbling. The fact that the Celtics only allow 38.5 points per game in the zone – the second-best value in the league – is also due to Theis, who, thanks to good instincts and strong technique, makes many deals difficult or changes without blocking them.

Not all blocks are the same

Theis, who rarely holds the ball in his hands, shines offensively, especially as a so-called screener. Again and again he puts hard blocks that the defenders of his teammates have to fight their way past. That sounds like a simple task, but there are worlds between an average and a very good block. “His angles on screens are great,” said his coach at the end of February about Theis, who with his blocks in the playoffs prepares 4.2 successful completions per game – only two professionals who are still represented in the playoffs are better.

After a block, Theis either rolls to the basket to be playable for deals. Or he starts his special move, the “seal”, in which, characteristically, he does not even touch the ball. The center braces his body between the basket and his defender, often the opponent’s best shot blocker, so that his teammates have safe conduct when moving into the zone.

At the moment there is probably no player who masters and uses this technique better than Theis, who sometimes anticipates the corresponding opportunities so early that the rooms are already blocked before the ball operator recognizes them. The biggest profiteer is top star Tatum, whose favorite block plate is Theis. His dunks and points are cheered. Theis’ part can often only be recognized in the repetition.

Theis is small and cheap

The German does all his hard work for an annual salary of five million dollars. Vanishingly little by NBA standards – and especially for his role. How much higher his next working paper will be depends on how serious his main weaknesses are in the further course of the playoff: the currently unusable three – and its size.

Theis measures just 2.03 meters, which is relatively small for its position. Heat-Center Bam Adebayo has clear advantages with 2.06 meters and a better physique. Should the Celtics get into the finals, even bigger and stronger big men would be waiting with Nikola Jokic (2.13 meters) from Denver or Anthony Davis (2.08 meters) from the LA Lakers. Without a functioning Theis, these series are unlikely to be won for Boston – which was already indicated last night.

Miami won the first game in overtime 117: 114, Adebayo clearly won the center duel. While Theis (four points, four rebounds) acted very inconspicuously even in the inconspicuous things and missed the final phase due to six fouls, Adebayo scored 18 points, six rebounds, nine assists – and the decisive action, a spectacular block against Tatum in the final seconds .

Theis now has to wait two days before he can correct the mixed impressions of the first game. If his Celtics beat the Heat, he would be the first German basketball player in the NBA Finals since Dirk Nowitzki. And Shaquille O’Neal would then probably know his name.

Icon: The mirror

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