Bulpett: New problem for Celts; how to score with Isaiah Thomas on the bench
Isaiah Thomas has been on the court an average of 34 minutes and seven seconds this season.
Even when you factor in the Celtics’ three overtime games, that’s still around 14 minutes shy of his dream. And as much as Thomas simply loves to play basketball and is unhappy when he’s not in the game, the Boston bottom line is making his point more loudly still as of late.
Last night against Milwaukee he was a plus-16 in a game the Celts lost by three. Sunday versus Miami he was a plus-21 in a game they won by four. Last Friday he was a plus-24 when the C’s beat Phoenix by 10, and if you want to chalk that up to Devin Booker’s garbage-time brilliance on the way to 70 points, be advised Isaiah went for 18 of his 34 in the final frame that evening.
“We’ve just got to play to our strengths to the best of our ability,” said coach Brad Stevens of those Thomas-less times. “I mean, that’s the bottom line. And, you know, we’ll continue to do small tweaks to that until we find the exact right one. But, yeah, we have struggled in those moments to score. There’s no question about it.”
Against the Bucks, the issue came into greater relief in Thomas’ traditional first-to-second-quarter break.
He left the floor with 2:17 left in the first period as Jae Crowder was hitting two free throws to give the Celts a 24-21 lead. When he returned five minutes and 48 seconds later, the Bucks were sitting on 34 points; the home side of the scoreboard hadn’t moved. Not a bit. From three ahead to 10 down. It was a shot of adrenaline the Celtics did now want to give Milwaukee, playing on the second night of a back-to-back after a win in Charlotte.
The Celts have other people who do score, but there clearly needs to be more production when Thomas is sitting.
Isaiah’s advice to his mates?
“Be aggressive,” he said after going for 32 points and becoming the sixth player in franchise history to surpass the 2,000-point plateau in a season. “Guys can’t second-guess themselves. Whoever he calls to get in the game, you’ve got to be aggressive, and when your shot’s there, you’ve got to take it and you’ve got to be aggressive and make plays, especially our guards. I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to remain confident in each other, and the guys who do go in the game got to be confident in themselves.”
Like we said, Thomas doesn’t like sitting.
“It’s frustrating, but, I mean, things happen,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to be successful at those times. And I believe in coach. I believe in the rest of the guys that are on this team. They’ve just got to have confidence and make plays. That’s all it comes down to.”
What we’re seeing now may be a quick glance at the other edge of the sword. If Thomas is to be relied upon for so much of the scoring, there are bound to be times when others are not able to hold up their end of the offense, as in last night when Celtics not named Isaiah shot just 36.6 percent from the floor.
“I mean, I’ve been doing what I’m doing for going on three years, so that can’t be no excuse,” Thomas said. “Guys just have to make plays, and they will. We just have to figure out ways to put people in position to be successful for when I guess, you say, I’m off the floor. But I don’t think that’s a concern right now. We just didn’t get enough stops tonight. That was the biggest key.”
Down by three with 3.9 seconds left, the Celts looked to Thomas again to bail them into overtime. But Greg Monroe got his hand on Marcus Smart’s inbounds pass. The game ended with Smart attempting a prayer of a trey.
“He tipped it, and I just had to tip it away, because I couldn’t get the ball,” said Thomas of Monroe. “He would have got the ball if I tried to grab it. It was just to get open and hopefully we hit a 3. There were a couple of options on that play, but I was definitely one of them.
“They just played harder than we did, especially in the first quarter, the beginning of the first quarter. Then I missed most of the second quarter, but when we applied the pressure and made them uncomfortable, we played our game. We’ve just got to figure that out earlier.”
What the Celts need to figure is how to play better when Thomas is missing. If they don’t, this could be a short postseason in these parts — and more Isaiah ire.
“Yeah, I want to play more,” he said, grinning. “I’ve always said that. But, I mean, that’s not the reason why we lost. I would love to play as close to the whole game as possible, but that’s not realistic. That’s just what it is, but, I mean, I always want to play more.”
But there’s a line that needs to be walked. The Celtics clearly need Thomas to be, you know, alive for the playoffs.
“We’ll worry about that when that comes,” he said, breaking into a smile.