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Daniel Theis: 'NBA Finals are a childhood dream'

Heiko Oldörp Boston
June 3, 2022

Daniel Theis is just the third German to play in the NBA Finals. The center, whose Boston Celtics are facing the Golden State Warriors for the title, is a team player capable of playing an important role when needed.

Daniel Theis | Boston Celtics | NBA | Basketball Herren | USA
Playing in the NBA Finals is a dream come true for Daniel TheisImage: Karen Pulfer Focht/EFE/IMAGO

The last time a German appeared in the NBA Finals was in 2011, when Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to the title. Back then, Daniel Theis was a 19-year-old playing for SG Braunschweig in Germany's second division alongside Dennis Schröder — two Germans whose paths would cross later in their careers.

Speaking to DW, Theis recalled losing sleep as Nowitzki led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA title, beating the Miami Heat 4-2. With the games starting at 3 a.m. German time, Theis would make sure he caught the second half by setting his alarm clock "for 4:45 or 5 o'clock."

Now 30, Theis has himself made it to the NBA Finals, as his Boston Celtics face Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors — something he described as "a childhood dream" that he still couldn't quite believe.

Nowitzki's praise

When Theis first arrived in Boston in 2017, Nowitzki was in the home stretch of his 21-year NBA career. The Mavericks legend always closely followed the journeys of his fellow Germans who made it to the world's top basketball league. The MVP of the 2011 Finals described the 6'9" (2.06 meters) Theis, who can play center or as a power forward, as "a big guy" who is "quite athletic, fast and clever" and "gets to the basket well."

Dirk Nowitzki lifts the NBA Championship Trophy
Theis has recieved praise from Germany's greatest basketball star, Dirk NowitzkiImage: Larry W. Smith/dpa/picture alliance

While Nowitzki was a superstar, the face, heart, and soul of the Mavs all rolled into one, Theis is eighth or ninth on the Celtics' squad. When Robert Williams, Boston's starting center, injured his knee in early April and had to undergo surgery, Theis was thrust into a starting role. With Williams remaining unavailable, Theis started all four games as the Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

He averaged 18.7 minutes and 7.9 points in the 2021-22 regular season. However, Theis' minutes have dwindled since Williams returned and he didn't play a single minute of the last three games of the semifinals against the Miami Heat. Sitting on the bench, though, he looked as involved as his teammates out on the floor, urging them on, sometimes giving out high fives.

"I have a lot of roles," the clearly proud Theis stressed.

The Celtics' second-oldest player may not be a star, but he is one of its more experienced players. Before he got to the NBA, Theis played not only in Germany's top league, the Basketball Bundesliga, but also competed in Europe, including two seasons in the EuroLeague, basketball's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League. He also represented Germany in the 2017 European Championship and the 2019 World Championship.

$36 million contract in Houston

Due to that experience, Theis is always looking to be a leader, addressing little things that jump out at him — be it from the bench, on the court, or during practice. Theis describes himself as an "energy guy," who aims to set the tone with his style of play, especially on defense. While he isn't all that spectacular on offense, he is good at setting screens and can rebound at either end of the court. He carries his teammates along with him.

Daniel Theis
Theis is a physical player who can rebound at both ends of the courtImage: Steven Senne/AP/picture alliance

But in March 2021, the Celtics pulled the plug on their "energy guy," trading him to the Chicago Bulls. In the summer, he joined the Houston Rockets in a sign-and-trade. From a sporting point of view, it was a step back as the Rockets were in the midst of a rebuild. But financially it was a slam dunk, with Theis signing a four-year contract worth $36 million (€33.6 million). However, his time in the Lone Star state would be short-lived — by February Theis was back in Boston.

Crossing paths with an old friend

The Celtics needed another center. They wanted more depth under the basket — and to get that, they were willing to part company with Theis' old teammate in Braunschweig, point guard Dennis Schröder. The Celtics had no plans to extend Schröder's contract and with him set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, they looked to get something in return by trading him. Houston obliged, so in February, Schröder moved to Houston and Theis returned to Boston.

Ime Udoka, who had taken over as coach in Boston last summer, didn't know Theis but he was immediately struck by his familiarity with the team, its tactics, and tempo. He needed no time to adjust and picked up where he had left off almost a year earlier. His flexibility in attack made him "perfect for Boston's needs at the center position," said Brian Scalabrini, a former Celtics player who is now a pundit with NBC Sports Boston.

A 50-50 Final

Theis who is "very grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the Finals," sees Boston's chances of coming out on top against the Warriors as "50-50."

He is just the third German to get the opportunity to play for the NBA title after Detlef Schrempf and his Seattle SuperSonics lost to the Chicago Bulls in 1996, and Nowitzki, who led the Mavs to victory in 2011, after having fallen short in the 2006 Finals to the Miami Heat.

And while he hasn't spoken to his old teammate Schröder since the start of the playoffs, "if everything goes according to plan, I'll see him with the national team in the summer," Theis said.

That's when Germany coach Gordon Herbert will be getting his squad together for training camp ahead of what will be a home European Championship. Germany play their group-stage games in Cologne, while Berlin is to host all of the games in the knockout phase. If Theis gets his way, Herbert will have an NBA champion to call on.

This article was originally written in German.