By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Isaiah Thomas has not been shy about being candid with his assessment of the performance of the Celtics all year long. He’s twice taken issue with the team’s coaching by Brad Stevens, the most recent episode coming Monday night in Los Angeles when he called out his head coach for leaning too heavily on the bottom of the depth chart in a road loss to the Clippers.
“We should have won this game. We should have won [Sunday] night [in Phoenix]. We can’t be experimenting in Game 63,” Thomas told reporters after the game. “It’s just the way we lost tonight was unacceptable. We lost the game in the last 15 minutes of the game. We played a really good game up until the last 15 minutes. And that’s the players’ fault, the coaches’ fault, that’s everybody in this locker room’s fault. We could have done a lot better.”
The first thing people took issue with upon seeing these comments was the timing and forum. Should Isaiah have talked publicly? Probably not, especially after he helped blow the game in Phoenix by missing a late free throw and turning the ball over on the final possession. Those points I get. His critiques are probably better served to come behind closed doors, instead of in the public sphere. Thomas deserves some heat for that.
However, when you put aside those issues, you have to admit Isaiah did have a point on Monday night. Stevens’ lineup decisions were baffling at best in the closing stages of the third quarter on Monday night and the C’s lost any real chance of pulling out that game because of them.
Before addressing that issue further, let’s get a few key points out of the way. The Celtics were down Al Horford and Jonas Jerebko for the matchup, giving Stevens a short bench to work with as is. Boston’s third game in four nights also factored into the equation, although there was no heavy lifting by the starters during Friday’s blowout win against the Lakers.
Despite these obstacles, Boston managed to be holding onto a double-digit lead with just 16 minutes left in the contest against a tired Clippers team. At that point, Stevens had a couple choices: Lean heavily on his healthy starters against a more talented LA roster, or roll the dice with a bunch of young players that haven’t cracked his rotation most of the season for a reason (Jordan Mickey, James Young, etc.)
Stevens went with the latter, and did it to the extreme. The lineup that Stevens played to close the third quarter when the Clips took command of the game with an 8-0 run in just 2 minutes? That group hadn’t played a minute together all season (Rozier/Smart/Brown/Young/Mickey).
Young barely made the roster, Mickey won’t be on the roster next year, and Stevens threw them to the wolves against a superior team on the road in a big spot. I know foul trouble and injuries were factors, but you have to stagger your starters better if you want to have a chance to win that game. You can’t get away with that group against the Clippers.
Stevens is coaching for the long term (ie. not overworking guys) so I understand him not wanting to play Isaiah and Crowder 40 minutes to win, but as a competitor, you have to understand that Isaiah must have been heated when he saw that group out there. The bench unit collapsed in incredible fashion over the middle eight minutes of the second half and the damage was done by the time starters got back out there with everyone on the Clippers already getting hot. For the record, the Clips shot 21-of-25 from the field to close out the game.
Criticize Isaiah all you want, but he was a plus-1 Monday night in 35 minutes. The Clippers won the game by 14 points. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a key part of it. Thomas is an All-Star and knew he needed to play above his usual average (34.3 minutes per game) for the C’s to have a chance in that contest. It’s hard to fault for wanting that shot, especially coming off of an ugly defeat Wednesday night.
The fact is Thomas may have more of an issue here with Danny Ainge than Brad Stevens. Ainge hasn’t upgraded a flawed roster at the trade deadline and it really came back to bite the Celtics this week out west when they were shorthanded.
As the race for No. 2 seed tightens up, the Celtics have a smaller margin of error in these games. It doesn’t make sense to play Isaiah Thomas 40-plus minutes every other night, but there are unique circumstances that call for it in the regular season. Monday night was one of those instances and Thomas wanted to make sure his coach knew that.
I doubt it will have a lasting impact on their relationship, but there are far bigger things for this Celtics team to worry about right now than an All-Star who wants to play more on a night his team needs him.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.