At the start of training camp, Isaiah Thomas was slotted at 6th man. The thinking was that he was instant offense off the bench. In short bursts, Brad Stevens could surround him with shooters and Isaiah Thomas could do Isaiah Thomas things: score, drive, and kick. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but the mightiest of mice step up and keep ballin'.
Injuries to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley have forced Stevens to thrust Thomas into the starting lineup early in the season and the fifth year pro has responded with arguably the best year of his career. He's shot better and been more efficient in the past, but his development as more of a point (and less as a scoring) guard has helped the him turn into a potential All Star candidate averaging nearly 21 & 7 a night.
Bounce back from every loss like a REAL one #CsUP— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) December 13, 2015
After a grueling double overtime loss to the Warriors where he shot a dismal 7-for-22 and missed two potential game-winning shots, he bounced back with a career high in assists (13) and pushed Boston to a 98-93 win in Charlotte on the 2nd night of a back-to-back on the road.
During the CSNNE broadcast, Scalabrine pointed out how effective Thomas is as a point guard when he gets between the free throw line and base line. Even at 5'9, he attracts so much attention. In the two GIF's below, you can see that early in the shot clock, the preference is to get Thomas freed up with an Amir Johnson/Jared Sullinger pick and see if the team can get an easy shot off of Thomas' penetration. Crowder and Bradley are spaced and it's just a matter of Thomas finding them when he's in the key and their defender shades to help.
(Note on Bradley's corner three: if Avery didn't catch that ball, Waltah was ready to catch and shoot.)
A few Thursdays back, the TNT studio crew debated Blake Griffin and how, as a star, he needed to improve his ability to accept a double team and make a play out of it. Below, both buckets are the product of his teammates recognizing the double team and cutting immediately, but it's also Thomas staying calm in the pocket as the defense collapses around him and IT making the pass under pressure.
Before arriving in Boston, one of Thomas' strengths was his ability to negotiate a pick-and-roll as the ball handler. Having he and Johnson (one of the game's best roll men last season) together seemed like a dream pairing. Unfortunately, the Celtics have shied away from PnR's and according to NBA.com/stats, they're seventh worst in points per possession on the roll at 0.99. (For what it's worth, the Clippers are dead last with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in hand.)
Thomas, however, is thriving as a ball handler. Of players that qualify with over 150 possessions, Thomas is 8th in points per possessions (0.85) and 7th in scoring frequency at 41.4% (meaning he or someone else scores off the PnR).
Thomas has made it difficult for Stevens to reinsert Smart into the starting lineup when he returns from injury, but he's not exactly a perfect player. I still cringe when he pulls up from 22 feet in transition or when he's seemingly experimenting with different kinds of floaters. It makes me wonder if Thomas is just another Jordan Crawford-type reclamation project and an attractive contract trade chip for Danny down the road. But here's a great tidbit from the Globe's Adam Himmelsbach after Saturday's gritty win:
"That's one of my favorite things about Isaiah," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He really cares about winning and losing. He's not down necessarily because of anything else, other than he wanted to make a shot to help us beat Golden State. The guy really cares."
"I just wanted to be aggressive, continue to be myself, continue to try to make plays for my teammates and myself and go from there," Thomas said. "Control what I can control, and do my job."
Love him, but I'm not sure anybody ever said that about Steez.