Enes Kanter likes to compare the Boston Celtics’ big-man situation to Power Rangers. Voltron might be an even better action-hero comparison.
See, the combined powers of Boston’s centers is far greater than the sum of their parts.
After the Celtics watched Al Horford land a payday with the rival Sixers last summer and traded away Aron Baynes to facilitate the arrival of Kemba Walker, Boston was left without a defensive anchor patrolling its back line.
Despite all of the team's perimeter talent, there was great consternation about the Celtics’ chances to compete with the East's elite because of that void.
Danny Ainge quietly pieced together a ragtag group of big men. The Celtics snagged Kanter using $5 million from the room midlevel exception, re-signed Daniel Theis at the same modest price tag, plucked Vincent Poirier out of France, traded down and drafted Grant Williams late in the first round, and nabbed Tacko Fall on a two-way deal after he went undrafted.
All while the team crossed its fingers that a lone holdover, 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, could make a leap.
Injuries added a layer of complexity to Boston’s big-man rotations throughout much of the 2019-20 season, but the arrival of the playoffs has spotlighted coach Brad Stevens’ ability to deploy a specific skillset to best counter that opponent’s strengths.
Forget Power Rangers and Voltron. It’s become a game of Pokemon.
When Philadelphia deployed fire-type Joel Embiid, Stevens countered with rock-type Kanter. When the Sixers switched to ground-type Horford, Stevens deployed grass-type Grant Williams (even if the rookie didn't have nearly as many Experience Points as the vet).
In Game 1 against the Raptors on Sunday, Stevens dusted off Robert Williams, who played less than 10 minutes over the final three games of the Sixers series, and deployed him as the first big off the bench while hoping to counter the athleticism of Serge Ibaka. Boston’s second-year big man had some obvious defensive lapses but offset that by chipping in 10 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting while serving as a consistent lob threat during his 19 minutes of floor time.
The Boston big-man troika of Theis, Rob Williams, and Grant Williams combined for 23 points and 20 rebounds (this despite the fact that Grant Williams’ only box score contribution was two fouls in his eight minutes as a small-ball 5). That production offset the 22 points and 15 rebounds that Toronto’s Marc Gasol and Ibaka paired up for.
None of Boston’s bigs would go particularly high in your fantasy draft. But the Celtics have harnessed their combined talents and they’re neutralizing some of the East’s top frontcourts.
"We’ve gotten it all year,” said Stevens. "I think that’s the one thing — I know people haven’t talked about our [big] guys a ton. There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the year how we were going to fill that. It really has been hockey-sub mentality and everybody’s just willing to play their role.
"For Rob, we sit him most of the Philly series, but know that if we play in this one, he’s probably going to get a chance to play. Enes doesn’t get a chance to play [in Game 1] — it doesn’t say anything about how good those guys are, it’s just the way that we match up. Everybody’s got a role to play, we’ve gotten great play from our centers all year because they complement our other guys extremely well.”
More importantly, they complement each other well. Theis struggles with beefier bigs like Embiid, so the Celtics leaned heavily on Kanter in Round 1. Kanter struggles in the pick-and-roll and so Rob Williams hopped the boards and skated with the backups to start Round 2.
"If you look at our big men, it’s like Power Rangers,” said Kanter. "We got Theis, he can pretty much do everything — pick and roll, pick and pop, can shoot the 3; Rob is a lob threat and blocking shots; you got me, the offensive rebounding, post-up play; then you got Tacko coming in and just literally everybody is cheering; Vincent comes in, Grant comes in. I feel like if I was on the teams that were going to play against us, I don’t know what to do, man.”
Theis deserves a lot of the credit for Boston staying afloat at the center position. He’s embraced his role with a talent-filled first unit and he’s more than content to set good screens and seal off defenders when Boston’s stars attack the basket. Sure, he’d like more whistles to go his way (the War on Theis saw a rare peace treaty in Sunday’s Game 1) but he tries hard defensively and rebounds well for his size.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus rankings feature three Boston players among the top 35 centers in Theis (4), Kanter (14), and Rob Williams (35). Theis, in fact, ranks second among ALL players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus trailing only Rudy Gobert (he’s also one spot ahead of LeBron James; defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo is all the way down at No. 8).
Theis had a rough offensive stretch in Sunday’s Game 1 against Toronto but he never let it impact his defensive play. The Celtics had a team-best defensive rating of 71.7 in Theis’ 25 minutes of floor time. That’s an absurd number.
Theis held his own against Gasol, too, limiting the veteran big man to 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting. The Raptors generated just 11 points overall on 4-of-13 shooting when Theis was the primary defender, per the NBA’s tracking data.
Rob Williams gave the Celtics the athletic presence they needed against Ibaka. He needs to tighten up his defensive focus but the potential is obvious. Most importantly, you could see Kanter cheering on Rob Williams and the rest of the bigs from the bench despite logging a DNP to start the series.
"We discuss it all the time, every game really. We know what matchups we need and what matchups work against teams,” said Rob Williams. "Before the Philly series, I just told [Kanter], 'Be ready, because you're what we need for this series.' Before this series, he told me, 'Be ready, the quick guys and rollers.' We just are trying to keep each other up.”
Voltron isn’t as formidable if any of its pieces are missing from the final form. For the Power Rangers, there’s strength in numbers. The Celtics are the same way. Stevens has been mixing and matching with his available pieces — not just at the center spot — while trying to figure out how to match up with these playoff foes.
At the end of the day, the bigs have bought into being complementary pieces. They don’t get the headlines like Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Marcus Smart. But that’s fine by them because they know the stars appreciate what they’re doing to help this team be its best.
So they remain malleable. Just like the Power Rangers, they know when it’s morphin’ time.
"I give a lot of credit to those [bench] guys,” said Stevens. "They are great teammates and care about winning. They also realize Kemba, Smart, Jaylen and Jayson are going to play a ton of minutes, so it's their job to do their roles as well as they can around those guys. As we've seen, that's how winning teams work so that's what we're going to try to be.”