Isaiah Thomas Has One Final Test: The Playoffs

Apr 8, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) looks on during the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Celtics beat the Pistons 113-103. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Isaiah Thomas story has been well documented.

A 5’9″ guard out of the University of Washington that played three years of high-caliber ball under coach Lorenzo Romar only to be selected dead last in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings; Thomas played well in three years as a King, including a 20.3 ppg season in 2013-14, but never gained mainstream attention for it. Isaiah was just another decent scoring point guard in a league filled with them.

He was just another guy.

After his rookie contract with Sacramento expired, Thomas hit free agency and signed a four-year deal with the Phoenix Suns to play alongside Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The trio was expected to play in an innovative and fast-paced three guard lineup under coach Jeff Hornacek.

The unit never clicked.

Within a few months, Dragic demanded a trade and was eventually moved to the Miami Heat and Thomas followed suit, getting sent to the Boston Celtics during the 2014-15 season as part of a three-team deal that included Boston sending a first rounder back to Phoenix.

Fast forward two and a half years, and here we are. What do we have?

Isaiah Thomas: Elite NBA player and leader of the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Formerly “just a guy”, Thomas was voted to both the 2016 and 2017 All-Star games, and this season has had career highs in points per game (29.1), shooting percentage (46 percent) and three-point percentage (38 percent). In a league that loves size, 5’9″ Isaiah has led the Celtics to a 48-26 record and moved into first place in the Eastern Conference Monday night. For a player of that height to rank third in points per game, eighth in player efficiency and fifth in player efficiency is unprecedented (oh, and also win).

Maybe it’s the culture created by NBA nerd’s wet-dream and Celtic head coach Brad Stevens. Maybe it’s the parquet floor and bright lights of the TD Garden. Or maybe it’s the chance to be the next in a line of legendary alpha dog Celtics.

There’s Bill Russell, who won eleven championships in thirteen playing seasons and set a standard of excellence alongside head coach Red Auerbach.

Then John Havlicek, who won six titles with Russell and two more well after Russell’s retirement to maintain the expectation of winning throughout the franchise. Not to mention of the greatest plays in franchise history.

Of course Larry Bird, who won three championships and led the way for the Celtics legendary ’86 team that won 67 games and a championship against Hakeem’s Rockets.

*sliding trombone sound* and Paul Pierce, who anchored the team to an astounding 321-354 record during the first eight seasons of his career before finally “equally pulling his weight” alongside Kevin Garnett and bringing a championship back to Boston in 2008 (and also has managed to get more love for it than KG).

And now Isaiah Thomas.

Yes, that is how good Isaiah Thomas has been. He’s being seriously compared to the Celtics Mount Rushmore, which is a real testimony to how well Boston has responded to “The Little Guy”, as Celtics legendary color analyst Tom Heinsohn says (or buries down your throat, depending on who you ask).

The question Thomas and Celtics president Danny Ainge now have to ask is simple: How serious is that comparison?

Boston currently has the rights to the Brooklyn Nets first round pick this season thanks to the still breathtakingly bad Pierce/Garnett/Jason Terry Trade. You know, the one that the entirety of New England will engrave into Danny Ainge’s statue when they crown him the greatest Boston sports general manager of all time. When your competition is a guy who ended the 84 year Red Sox curse and the greatest football coach of all time, that title actually means something and really goes to show how crazy that trade was.

If Ainge can play his cards right over the next few years, he has the chance to set up two decades of consistent winning for the Celtics. And it all came from that one trade! The general skinny:

Brooklyn gets: Old-ass Kevin Garnett, old-ass Paul Peirce, old-ass Jason Terry, filler
Boston gets: Kris Humphries’ crappy contract, Gerald Wallace’s crappy contract, filler, filler, more filler, a 2014 first round pick, a 2016 first round pick, a 2018 first round pick and the option to swap picks 2017 first round picks

Like I said, breathtaking.

As we all know, things haven’t gone so well for the Nets and they’re now doomed to be bad for at least the next five years, making these picks skyrocket in value. The 2017 pick looks like it will be the first overall, a blessing in one of the most hyped drafts of all time.

Even if Ainge wants to move for a more established star, like he did with Garnett, the picks have been used as trade chips in discussions involving Jimmy Butler and Paul George. One way or another, the Celtics are going to make major roster decisions that revolve around those picks.

Because of that, everyone on the Celtics current roster has question marks surrounding their futures in Boston, even someone with as much popularity as IT.

Thomas’ contract is extremely team-friendly and runs through the end of next season, making him an extremely tradeable asset this offseason from a logistics standpoint. Due to make only $6.2 million next year, would it be crazy to see Ainge try and flip the peaking 28-year-old for younger pieces to surround a Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball?

Thomas has been a ton of fun this season. He’s been the league’s best fourth-quarter player, routinely hit tough shots during stretch runs of tight games, become wildly popular amongst kids, put up gaudy statistics and above all else – he’s won a lot of games.

The problem is that those games have yet to matter. The NBA’s obsession with postseason success has been the one knock on Thomas. He simply has yet to put these types of numbers up when it matters most.

Isaiah has made the playoffs twice as a Celtic. The results haven’t been what you’d call “great”.

Year one: The Celtics ride the recently acquired Isaiah and momentum from trading Rajon Rondo away to a strong second half and an eight seed. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers promptly sweep them out of the playoffs in the first round.

Not great, but also not a great example. Thomas was still evolving as a player and had yet to really blossom under Stevens. Not to mention the fact that that Celtics team just wasn’t very good. No offense, Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner. You just aren’t who I want on my starting five when it comes to making a deep playoff run.

Year two, on the other hand, is what Thomas has been compared to all season.

In his first full year under Stevens, Thomas flourished. He averaged a then-career high 22.2 ppg en route to his first all-star game selection. The Celtics, meanwhile, were in their third season under Wonder Boy and finally seemed to hit their stride. For much of the year, Boston was a top-three team in the East behind only Cleveland and the Toronto Raptors before finally struggling down the stretch and settling for the five seed.

Still, with a coach many were praising as the next coming of Greg Popovich and a budding star in Thomas (plus a supporting cast that featured the eternally underrated Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley), Boston was seen by many to be a favorite in their first round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, regardless of home-court advantage.

Instead, the Celts went down 2-0, rode the always great TD Garden Playoff crowd to wins in games three and four, got blown out in Atlanta for game five and eventually went out with a whimper in the pivotal game six. Outside of his 42 point, 12-for-24 shooting performance during game three, Thomas mostly struggled to get going in the series.

Thomas’ short stature requires him to find angles and holes in a defense that other players simply wouldn’t see, exploit those weaknesses and finish seemingly-well contested shots. Atlanta, led by a defense that ranked second in defensive rating that season as well as first in opponent field goal percentage, was long enough and good enough to take away a lot of the spaces Isaiah likes to operate in.

Take this clip as an example:

Thomas gets freed from Dennis Schröder thanks to a well-placed half court pick from Amir Johnson that looked like the Hawks neglected to call out (because Schröder looks like a bobblehead when he hits into Johnson). Paul Millsap is rangy and athletic enough to meet IT at the point, so Atlanta recovers and manages to shut down any three-point attempt from the gun-slinging Thomas.

Few players are as good at exploiting this type of mismatch as Isaiah. If a big doesn’t come out far enough, he’ll pull up for three. If they come out too far, he’ll penetrate and create from there. It’s nightmare fuel for opposing big men. If they switch on Thomas, they just know things are going to end poorly for them.

Here, he does just that; blowing past Millsap en route to the rim.

Only when he gets there, Jeff Teague and Kent Bazemore have rotated over and effectively blocked off any chance of IT finishing for a bucket. Instead, he’s forced to kick out to 24 percent three-point shooter Evan Turner. Mike Scott closes out on Turner, who hauls up a brick that’s eventually rebounded by Millsap. Possession over, no points.

This is really the same problem the Golden State Warriors had to overcome in their Western Conference finals matchup against the OKC Thunder last season.

The length and defensive teamwork provided by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder shut down a lot of passing and driving lanes that Steph Curry had become so accustomed to exploiting. With those lanes now closed, the Dubs offense looked like it was playing in slow-motion a lot of the series. Eventually, the raw talent and teamwork of the Warriors won out and the Dubs snuck out a game seven victory to advance to the Finals.

Isaiah and the Celts just never figured it out the way Golden State did.

In his six games against the Hawks, Thomas shot just 39.5 percent from the field – including a brutal 9-for-24 game six – and was even worse from deep, finishing at 28.3 percent from behind the arc. The new alpha-dog of the Celtics made only 31.8 percent of his shots and averaged 18.8 ppg in the four Boston losses compared to 48.9 percent and 35 ppg marks in the teams two wins. Thomas, who took 22 percent of his shots during the regular season with a defender playing tight defense (within two-to-four feet) and made 31.5 percent of them. Against Atlanta, 27.7 percent of his shots came with a defender tight, making just 30.3 percent of them.

In his most prevalent playoff test, Isaiah Thomas failed*.

Kind of.

The asterisk that follows Isaiah’s playoff struggles is a simple one: That was a different team than this season’s squad. Actually, it wasn’t even the best team from that year’s campaign.

Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk ranked third and first respectively on that Celtics team in three-point percentage, contributing just over 30 percent of the team’s buckets from behind the arc. Sure enough, both missed the majority of the Atlanta series.

Without two of their top shooters, Boston went a brutal 27.5 percent on three-point attempts against the Hawks, killing any chance of Boston spreading Atlanta’s defense out to create room for Isaiah. With no one capable of hitting shots, Hawks defenders routinely came off their assignments to bother Thomas on drives.

Let’s go back to the clip from above and see how much Atlanta’s defense collapses in on IT.

Jae Crowder, Evan Turner, and James Young are all left completely alone along the perimeter. The pass to Crowder – the only capable three point shooter out of that trio – is blocked by Mike Scott, leaving only Turner and Young alone while Thomas fends off the entire city of Atlanta. Because Turner and Young were both below 30 percent three-point shooters in 2016, leaving them alone in the corners is a far more attractive offer for the Hawks than letting IT take on a defender one-vs-one.

This season, the Celtics have seemed hell-bent on preventing lanes from closing up on Isaiah come playoff time.

The biggest help in their quest: Al Horford.

To some extent, Horford has been a little bit of a disappointment since signing a 4-yr/$112 million deal with Boston last summer and jumping ship from Atlanta.

The narrative around the Celtics for the past two seasons has been that they’re a superstar away. As we’ve covered, Isaiah has been great and become a beloved member of the community, but the franchise itself hasn’t committed to him as a long-term building block. That’s where Horford comes in.

Ideally, he would be a veteran leader for whoever becomes of all the Celtics future assets to build around and lean on. His game looks like it will age fairly well, especially with the inclusion of a consistent three-point shot. He could re-sign with the team after his current deal is up, still be an effective 34-year-old big man, help the team continue to grow, maybe win a title or three, eventually get his jersey retired and go down as one of the greatest Celtics of all time.

And really, he hasn’t been bad this season.

To say that Horford has been anything but good this season would be false. He’s been the definition of solid for the Celtics, he just hasn’t done much more than that (which is pretty much what Boston wanted out of him as a player! It’s crazy that people have treated his season so harshly, this is what he is. If you overrated Horford, that’s on you).

Sure, there’s been some growing pains for Horford, someone who hadn’t developed an outside game until last season yet now averages 3.7 3pa a night. His 35.5 percent shooting clip from behind the arc isn’t bad, but he hasn’t always looked comfortable operating in Brad Steven’s offense, often times getting forgotten about as a scoring threat.

What he has done is give Steven’s an exceedingly solid screen setter to play around with.

Horford’s 3.5 screen assists lead the Celtics and are good for 14th in the league. Even more important though is the way the floor opens things up for Thomas to create.

Take this clip from a Celtics game way back in November as a good example:

Last season, Roy Hibbert would have been able to jump up and smother Thomas because he wouldn’t have to worry about Horford being there to make a tough touch shot. Well okay, Hibbert probably wouldn’t have done that because he lacks the athleticism to even jump over a credit card (credit for that sick burn: Kobe Bryant), but it’s the principle! Horford’s skill set creates this entire play, from start to finish.

His screen frees Thomas of Ramon Sessions; his ability to score keeps Hibbert honest (as well as sucking in two perimeter defenders, if he had felt like adding to his 5.1 apg); which gives Thomas the time and room to hit Horford with the pass; and of course Horford has the ability to finish the baby jumper. That’s something that Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson simply weren’t doing on a consistent basis last season.

Horford forces defenses to play Thomas more honestly, freeing the point guard up to play freely and without two defenders constantly in his jersey. In the postseason, that’s exactly what Boston will need.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Celtics would meet the Indiana Pacers in the first round. The Pacers have a bunch of rangy, athletic front court presences (Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Paul George) that could find some success in switching on the Horford-Thomas pick and rolls. But then again, George has one foot out the door and is damn-near tripping over himself to get to a Los Angeles team and the Pacers haven’t shown any consistency this season defensively.

Realistically, it’s pointless to try and project or predict a playoff series with a month and a half left of the regular season. So I’m not going to spend time doing it. The point here is that Horford and a healthy Celtics roster are going to give Thomas his best chance yet at playoff success.

With Horford setting up screens and actually acting as a multi-faceted weapon afterward, plus a healthy Bradley and generally improved roster, the floor should be spread out and be filled with opportunities for Thomas to explode. Barring injury, this is put up or shut up time for IT.

Yeah, you can hit clutch shot after clutch shot or consistently lead wild comebacks all season. Even average nearly 30 points a night.

But this is a results-oriented league, and if Thomas can’t prove he can get it done in the postseason, Ainge and the Celtics might have to look to move on. After all, no one is as unafraid to cut a former superstar like the folks in Boston’s front office. If they did it to all three members of the famed Big Three, plus nearly every other member of those teams (including Rajon Rondo, who did not make the decision as difficult as others), they’ll do it to Thomas.

The future of the Celtics begins this postseason in what IT gives them to work with. If he shows Ainge enough, it’s hard to imagine him not working out a deal to stay in Boston. If he falters and the Celtics get bounced in the second round in ugly fashion… his future gets murkier.

The Celtics assets are lined up like dominos at this point. There’s the 2017 Nets pick, the 2018 Nets draft pick and of course the members of the roster they’d be willing to give up. But it all starts with Isaiah Thomas. Once he moves, so will the rest.

5’9″. Last pick in the draft.

The deciding factor in the direction of the Boston Celtics.

Who would have thought they would see such a thing.


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