By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Washington Wizards have made a point to make life difficult for Isaiah Thomas over the last three games.
It worked again on Wednesday night as the Celtics guard was held to just 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting, a fairly low total for Thomas’ standards. It was the third straight game he’s been kept under 20 points.
But the big difference between Boston’s 123-101 win in Game 5 and their two embarrassing losses in the nation’s capital in Games 3 and 4 is Thomas’ supporting cast finally stepped up on Wednesday night, allowing the guard to contribute in a number of other ways.
Avery Bradley had a career evening with 29 points on 12-for-19 shooting. Al Horford asserted himself on the offensive end and hit all but one of his nine shots, finishing the night with 19 points (not to mention seven assists and six rebounds). Jae Crowder has had some bad nights this postseason, but he hit some big shots on Wednesday night and finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. Off the bench, Marcus Smart looked like himself once again crashing the boards (he finished with 11 rebounds) and adding nine points.
As Bradley knocked down just about every shot he put up in the first quarter, Thomas knew he didn’t have to force things on the offensive end. With the Wizards making things tough for him, he decided to make this easier for his teammates and shifted to facilitator mode, both with his passing and setting screens. The latter is a somewhat unorthodox way for a 5-foot-9 player to impact the game, but Thomas was up to the challenge.
“I’m versatile,” Thomas said with a smirk after the win. “I do it all.”
It was obvious he would have at least two defenders on him, even when he didn’t have the ball in his hands, so Thomas set that facilitator tone early. With Bradley Beal shadowing him and Marcin Gortat a few feet off of Horford at the top of the key, ready to block a potential Thomas drive, Isaiah ran right into the Washington big man, screening him from getting to Horford when Bradley fed him the ball. With Beal and Gortat still on Thomas, Horford drained the open three to give Boston an early 11-4 lead, part of a 16-0 run by the Celtics that proved to be insurmountable for the Wizards.
It’s usually the other way around, with Horford springing an open look for Thomas with a textbook screen. The C’s big man was a little surprised at first, but welcomed the open looks throughout the night.
“I’ve never done that before, and he did it. He set a great screen, and I scored a couple of times. It was nice for a change,” said Horford.
With the Wizards determined to keep Thomas in check, the Celtics found the open man and took advantage. They finished with 33 assists on 46 made baskets, with Thomas dishing out nine of those helpers.
[graphiq id=”4VHzTiPbQ21″ title=”Isaiah Thomas 2017 Playoff Game Log” width=”600″ height=”603″ url=”https://sw.graphiq.com/w/4VHzTiPbQ21″ frozen=”true”]
“I guess that’s how I’ve got to play. As a basketball player you have to read what the defense is giving you, and they had two or three guys on me at all time. What I’m trying to do is just give other guys space, create space for others and be a good screen-setter. I think that’s key,” said Thomas. “I was just trying to do whatever I could tonight to win, really.”
“I think that with Isaiah getting so much attention, we needed to step up and make plays,” added Horford. “I felt like Isaiah did a good job delivering the ball, getting rid of it at the right times, and we just made plays.”
Thomas has been kept in check scoring-wise (at least by his monumental standards) since his epic 53-point night back in Game 2. But the Celtics now own a 3-2 series lead and can advance to the Eastern Conference Finals with a win in Washington DC on Friday night. The Wizards defense is going to continue to focus on Thomas and make his supporting cast beat them. They proved they could do so Wednesday night, and now they’ll have to do it again in a hostile environment.
Thomas showed he can impact the game without putting the ball in the hoop. That should give the rest of the Celtics all the confidence they need to finish things off on Friday night.