Celtics' Centers Come Up Big in Game 1 Win Over Toronto

Boston’s talented group of wings and ball handlers have garnered a substantial amount of attention throughout this season, but what has often flown under the radar had been the solid all-around play it that it's gotten out of the center position.

On Sunday afternoon, the Celtics’ centers deserved to be at the center of attention, as Daniel Theis and Robert Williams tag-teamed for a phenomenal frontcourt performance that helped Boston take down Toronto, 112-94, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Theis and Williams combined for 23 points, 20 rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals, while also helping to limit Toronto’s respected frontcourt tandem of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to just 7-of-17 shooting from the floor.

For Theis, it was by far the best rebounding game of his NBA career, as he tallied 15 boards, including 13 on the defensive end. By comparison, he had corralled 15 rebounds in total during Boston’s four-game, first-round series against Philadelphia. Though, to be fair, that was a much different scenario, as he had been battling against arguably the best center in the league in Joel Embiid.

“It's a different series than against Philadelphia,” Theis said after Sunday’s win. “Joel was down there the whole time. I had to box him out so other guys could grab the rebound. This series right now, I have the chance to just grab rebounds so we can (get out in transition and) play fast.”

Theis will find that his responsibilities are much different during this series, though they won’t necessarily be any easier. The last round was more of a test of brute strength in going up against the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid, while this series will be a test of lateral quickness and patience in going up against Toronto’s drivers.

The German big man worked throughout the week to make all of the adjustments necessary for this matchup, and his hard work clearly paid off during Game 1.

“That was the emphasis of the whole week,” Theis said of defending Toronto’s drives. “Kyle Lowry is great at drawing fouls and going downhill to the basket against the big guys. We have to put our hands back to make him finish over us. We did a pretty good job overall. We didn't give up easy shots, especially in the first half. We played great defense and didn't give up any easy shots.”

While Theis was focused on not giving up easy buckets on the defensive end, his backup was focused on seeking out easy buckets on the offensive end. Williams entered the game midway through the first quarter after Theis got into early foul trouble and gave Boston an immediate boost. Shortly after checking in, the third-year big man threw down a pair of dunks, which contributed to their 39-23 first-quarter advantage. He wound up making all five of his shot attempts on the afternoon, four of which came in dunking fashion.

Having a player like Williams who can come off the bench and provide a spark is critical, especially considering Boston’s short-handedness with the absence of Gordon Hayward.

“Rob is one of those guys where he comes in and he changes the game, just his presence,” said Marcus Smart, who tied Jayson Tatum for the game-high in scoring with 21 points. “His athleticism is ridiculous. He adds more athleticism and more height to our team and allows us to do a lot more on that defensive end where we can get up into guys, pressure guys, because we know we’ve got a guy like him in the back protecting us. Not only that, on the offensive end, a guy you can throw the ball to, come up with some costly rebounds for us, put-backs and things like that, and just really opens the floor for us guards.”

Such was the case Sunday afternoon. The strong play of Boston’s centers helped to create more opportunities for its ball handlers and wings, as Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Smart, and Tatum all scored between 17 and 21 points.

Those are the players who have received most of the attention throughout the season, but they wouldn’t have been so successful if it weren’t for the consistent support that their frontcourt teammates have given them.

What makes Boston's frontcourt unusual is that it contains a platoon of centers. During the last series, for example, Enes Kanter played a substantial role against the physical 76ers, while Rob Williams saw just 22 minutes of action across four games. However, while facing a smaller, quicker Raptors team on Sunday, Kanter didn’t see the floor at all, while Williams saw nearly 19 minutes of action.

Despite the inconsistency in playing time, both of those players have accepted their role within the system, which helps to make things operate even smoother.

“It really has been hockey sub mentality and everybody’s just willing to play their role,” said C’s head coach Brad Stevens. “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 today; 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.”

Those centers more than just complemented the other guys on Sunday afternoon; they were at the center of Boston’s success, as both Theis and Williams contributed immensely to the series-opening win.

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