Celtics notebook: Taking pressure off Isaiah Thomas key on West Coast swing
The Celtics open their five-city western road trip tonight in Los Angeles against the Lakers, and anyone who has watched this team since its loss in Chicago on Feb. 16 has a right to ask: Who are the real Celtics?
Is it the team which lost 3-of-4, to Chicago, Toronto and home to Atlanta? Or is it the team that played one of its most balanced games of the season in beating Cleveland 103-99 on Wednesday?
It was the difference between Isaiah Thomas being bottled up in the paint without relief — or the calls the Celtics guard needs when he gets that deep — and him making the Cavaliers pay for double and tripling him.
All concerned agree that if the Celtics are to survive this stretch against the Lakers, Suns, Clippers, Warriors and Nuggets, Al Horford, Jae Crowder and the just-returned Avery Bradley have to continue lifting the scoring burden off Thomas in crunch time.
“We know teams are going to continue to give him different looks,” said Crowder, who along with Bradley hit a big Thomas-assisted 3-pointer in the last three minutes on Wednesday. “We have to play off him as (much as we can) when he has the ball in his hands. He made the right play time after time and the kick-outs he made to me and Avery, those are the plays we have to execute late in the game.”
It’s the only way to move forward, according to Bradley, with teams blitzing Thomas.
“It’s important for all of our guys to step up,” said Bradley. “Jaylen (Brown) is getting opportunities and playing very well. James Young. Isaiah trusts those guys and we’re a team. He’s getting better at learning how to make plays for our team. Seeing that teams are focusing on him and trapping him, he’s learning, just like everybody would. He’s making the right play 100 percent of the time.”
The Celtics may yet sign a free agent prior to the playoffs, with former Celtic and current free agent Jared Sullinger one possibility if the team continues to suffer on the glass.
For now, Brad Stevens is prepared to move on with Bradley’s return after a 22-game Achilles-related absence the only significant addition. On a rebounding level, somewhat sadly, Bradley actually represents an upgrade; he remains the team’s leading rebounder.
“I don’t think I’m saying anything earth shattering here — we’re all chasing Cleveland, right?” said the Celtics coach. “At the end of the day, we better get a lot better to be in that conversation. The way that we do that is we get to work on every little thing we can control and try to play as purposeful a game every possession that’s possible. These guys kill you if you string together possessions like we did the other night, where we played with less poise and didn’t get back on defense.
“My job is always to focus on the guys at hand, and that’s what I do, and that’s what I’ve done,” said Stevens. “I like our guys a lot, and our guys give forth great energy. I think we have to play a lot better to be, you know, a better team. I’ve said this before: We’re not as good as our record. Until we really defend at the rate we need to, and until we get a little better rebounding, and more poise on offense, we’re still on that upward climb.”
Can-do vs. Cavs
Wednesday’s win also supplied a much-needed confidence boost and a fresh belief that a playoff series against Cleveland is winnable.
“Every time we play them, we feel like we can beat them,” Crowder said. “I know we’ve come up short, but we just know if we execute everything we have control over, which is take good shots on the offensive end, set up our defense, and give ourselves a chance to win, we know it would be a game. But if we try to get back at these guys and get out of character on the offensive end — which leads to leak-outs and those guys going up and down — it would be a tough night for us. So once we controlled those things we knew we had a great chance of winning the game.
“It’s big for us,” he said. “It takes the momentum, especially after a bad loss to Atlanta, and just gives us momentum going into the West Coast swing. Because we all know this is a tough swing to go out there and play (five) games.”