A predictable flaw re-emerges in Celtics’ loss to the Nets

(Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

The Celtics’ center spot was always going to be the biggest question mark for this team heading into the year, but the grouping has held its own 20 percent into the season. With four players holding varying skillsets manning the middle on most nights, Brad Stevens has done admirably mixing and matching with the hot hand or right matchup over the first 17 games of the year, helping the C’s jump out to a 13-4 record.

The center position hasn’t won the C’s a lot of games early, but it has also not been the reason for defeats. Daniel Theis has held his own on most nights when healthy ,while Rob Williams, Enes Kanter, and Grant Williams have all had their moments on both ends of the floor (Vincent Poirier (DNP-CD) remains No. 5 on the center depth chart). Consistency remains an obstacle within that grouping, however, as there are certain nights where no one within that group is capable of giving Stevens what he needs on both ends of the floor. That proved to be a lethal flaw in Friday’s 112-107 loss to the Nets, as Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan combined for 22 points and 22 rebounds with all 11 of their made field goals coming at the rim.

There were a lot of reasons for the C’s defeat in the Black Friday matinee. A sloppy start by the starters including Jayson Tatum (six turnovers) led to a season-high 19 turnovers. Subpar shooting from Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart also loomed large. Yet, the C’s inability to adequately prevent easy looks by the Nets centers and also punish their limitations on the defensive end simultaneously proved to be a crucial factor in their undoing. From a big-picture standpoint, we got an ugly look at everyone’s flaws at center in the defeat and evaluating how the team manages those in the next few months will be crucial in determining how this season will go for Boston.

Daniel Theis

We’ve seen the good version of Theis pretty much all year but he met a familiar mismatch that will be seen across the Eastern Conference playoff picture all year long: An athletic center with a big size edge over him.

Theis is mobile but a lack of length and disruptiveness in the pick-and-roll defense when he’s flat-footed is troublesome and that’s what earned him a quick hook (2 points, 3 rebounds in seven minutes) against the Nets on Friday. Brooklyn got plenty of easy dunks at the rim with Theis caught in no man's land between the ball handler and the roller.

It’s hard to give Theis too much flack when he played just seven minutes, but the Nets offense was nearly unstoppable (plus-14) when he was on the floor. His lack of athleticism inside has also been an issue when he tries to finish at the rim.

With his 3-point shot nowhere to be found early, Theis hasn’t really been able to punish less mobile bigs much at all or scare them out of the paint on offense. That’s a long-term concern for what has been a good season for him overall. Even though he’s playing well, size mismatches like we saw Friday against strong pick-and-roll guards are always going to be tough, which is why the C's brought in plenty of reinforcements behind him this offseason.

Enes Kanter

The veteran center was playing well enough in the first half to get the call just 15 seconds after intermission when Theis allowed an easy dunk to Allen. However, his stay on the floor only lasted nine minutes during the entire second half, as his defensive flaws were on full display.

Like Theis, he consistently got caught in no man’s land, failing to stop the ball or his man in pick-and-roll situations which produced countless layups and dunks.

Jordan dunk on Kanter

He also failed to get back on a couple of occasions, pointing back to no one here to pick up a wide-open Taurean Prince as he dunked the ball after an outlet pass.

Kanter transition

Sometimes, Kanter provides enough offense to compensate for his defensive woes but he struggled finishing against the Nets’ length (2-of-6 FG) in the second half, making him a net negative as a whole. This has always been the situation with the well-traveled center throughout his career. He’s one of the weakest pick-and-roll center defenders in the NBA and the Nets’ coaching staff hammered him with that play on Friday until Brad Stevens cried uncle and benched him. Either Kanter gets better in this area or he’s not going to be trusted for crunch-time minutes. His career arc makes that an unlikely bet.

Grant Williams

The rookie forward was the 7th Celtic off the bench on Friday afternoon as the C’s defense was taking on water with Kanter and Theis manning the middle early. He played all nine of his minutes in the second half and did not make an imprint in the box score beyond his three blocks and a brutal charging call that was somehow not overturned on review despite Spencer Dinwiddie’s flop.

Williams was brought into the game so the C’s could switch at all five positions in the fourth quarter and he struggled to defend Dinwiddie (31 points) like the rest of the C’s roster at points. However, his rotations were on point and he delivered a couple of key blocks, giving the C's D a boost when he was on the floor. So why was he pulled late?

His size and lack of offense remain a consistent issue. Williams missed both of his shots from point-blank range, dropping his shooting percentage to 23 percent on the year. Not only is he not scaring defenses with his outside shooting (0-of-21 from 3-point range) but he’s struggling inside as well, making just 42 percent of his attempts inside the arc (a low mark for the big). Those issues were on display against the Nets as he was blocked at the rim on one drive and failed to finish an easy alley-oop pass late in the fourth quarter.

Williams will be in this league a long time due to his defensive instincts, but the C’s need more from him on the offensive end to prevent having it feel like a 4-on-5 situation offensively when he’s on the floor. The team is clearly being patient with him and trying to boost his confidence by giving him the green light on jumpers but they need him to be able to do something from a scoring standpoint to roll him out for crunch time minutes with his size disadvantage. That’s clearly a work in progress at this point.

Rob Williams

After getting a couple of crunch-time reps with Theis sidelined last week, he got another one today despite looking brutal in the first half. The good news? He bounced back nicely after intermission, posting six points and five rebounds, including a made mid-range jump shot and a lefty hook. The surprise offense was certainly a positive but Williams has been burned a bit in crunch time on the defensive end lately and it happened again on a pivotal possession in the final minute against the Nets.

Williams loves to block shots and that instinct has gotten the best of him in crucial spots. That happened here as the Nets held the ball up four with under a minute left. The Celtics played fantastic defense for 20 seconds in this possession and Jaylen Brown is closing in on Harris at the top of the arc as the shot clock winds down. The problem? Williams thinks the shot clock is extra low and provides extra unneeded help, leaving his man (Jarrett Allen) rolling to the rim unmarked. He gives the head fake and feeds Allen for the dunk with a second left on the clock.

As Stevens looks for someone to trust in these situations, it’s clear that Williams still struggles with staying solid and maintain his own responsibilities on his plays instead of over helping. Smart teams and players are continually taking advantage of this, as seen in Denver last week and today in Brooklyn.

It would be tough for any second-year center with limited experience to be in this position but the C's defense is clearly missing a strong anchor in these spots. Williams’ other miscues (a high turnover rate, low shot volume) are easier to swallow if he’s providing steady D but he has yet to do that in big moments. His athleticism makes him the ideal choice for facing guys like Allen and Jordan but he’s still got a long way to go to earn a regular spot in that role.

The good news for the Celtics? These issues have only simultaneously popped up across the depth chart in a few games during Boston’s 13-5 start. Stevens has found the hot hand when needed among his bigs and the C’s team defense has been good enough to cover up for some mistakes and adapt to the personnel on any given night.

In the big picture, it’s still fair to wonder whether any of these guys can be counted on for big minutes against elite competition when the games matter most. Theis has shown signs, but his size (6-foot-8) is a flaw and there has not been much consistency from the rest of this group night-to-night or even half-to-half. Just how much growth we see from these guys in the coming months will determine whether this team will decide to count on them beyond the trade deadline, or make an upgrade to fully invest at making a run at the Eastern Conference.