BOSTON (CBS) — Went back and watched the first quarter of Game 3 between the Celtics and Wizards on Thursday night. And before anyone suggests that the Wizards took Isaiah Thomas out of the game on both ends of the floor, it sure felt like the Celtics actually did that for them.
The question is, why?
Were the Celtics trying to get other players involved early? Did they anticipate the Wizards being especially aggressive with Thomas and planned accordingly? And frankly, did the Celtics give the Wizards too much credit?
Seriously, folks, go back and look at the video. Fresh off a 53-point explosion in Game 2, Thomas came out in Game 3 and did not look particularly engaged. Maybe that’s why coach Brad Stevens curiously removed him from the game with five minutes remaining in the first quarter and the Wizards holding an 18-12 lead. By the time Thomas came back in, there was 2:22 left in the first and the Wizards were up 29-12, all but done with a 22-0 run that extended the score to 34-12 and ended the game.
The Celtics never got closer than 19 after that run. Think about that. Rare is the NBA game – particularly in the playoffs – where a team gets its doors blown off out of the gate and never, ever makes any sort of run.
But that’s what happened to the Celtics Thursday night and Thomas’ ineffectiveness in the early part of the game – for whatever reason –was a major reason. He never really showed up, which should not be taken as a criticism as much as a statement of fact.
“They had a lot more energy than we did and they played a really good game,” Thomas said at the podium after Boston’s 116-89 loss. “The adjustments they made, they wanted to go at me but it definitely [wasn’t] as much as it looked like. The next game I’ve got to be more aggressive, I can’t worry about what they’re doing. Like I told my guys in the locker room, we’ve got to continue to be who we are, continue to set screens and get guys open even if they’re calling offensive fouls on the screens. We’ve got to adjust. We didn’t do a good of that on the offensive end, on top of letting them do whatever they want on their offensive end.”
Let’s focus on this part of Isaiah’s comment: The next game I’ve got to be more aggressive, I can’t worry about what they’re doing. So is that what happened here? Or did Stevens assume the Wizards would double- and triple-team Isaiah out of the gate and try to plan accordingly?
Again, go back and look at the first quarter. On many occasions, Thomas gave the ball up prematurely, stood in the corner (presumably as a decoy) or failed to attack the basket. He didn’t look for his shot. Nonetheless, the game was actually tied 12-12 – Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley made a combined 5-of-8 in the first, including 2-of-3 from long distance – when the Wizards scored six straight.
That’s when Stevens pulled Thomas from the game.
Did the Wizards do a better job on Thomas in the first seven minutes? Well, sure. On Thomas’ first shot attempt of the game, a 3-pointer off an inbounds play, Wizards guard John Wall did a much better job chasing Thomas and contesting the shot than he had done earlier in the series, particularly in Game 2. Less than a minute later, Thomas was out top, beyond the arc, when he dribbled around an Al Horford pick and started to shoot a 3. Wall quickly went under the screen, came around the other side and again contested the shot, forcing Thomas – in mid-air – to put the ball back on the floor and turn it over, sending the Wizards in the opposite direction.
(Last game, for what it’s worth, Wall went over the screen and tried to chase Thomas, who easily scampered toward the paint, ball in hand, a combination of elements that is the sweet spot of the Celtics offense.)
Again, for what it’s worth, Stevens similarly pulled Thomas slightly after the midpoint of the first quarter in Game 2. But this felt different. In this game, Thomas was never even remotely engaged. At least not really. And while Thomas certainly has earned latitude during time with the Celtics and has every right to experience an off-night – particularly given what he had endured with the tragic death of his sister – an old truth was reaffirmed last night.
As Isaiah goes, so go the Celtics.