Teams aren't expected to improve after losing their best players, but the Boston Celtics have made a trend of that this season. First it was Rajon Rondo, then it was Jeff Green, and most recently the Celtics have taken it to the next level with Isaiah Thomas out with a lower back injury.
The Celtics were two games behind Charlotte for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference when it was announced on March 10 that Thomas would miss time. Their postseason dreams were suddenly in doubt, but they have gone 5-3 over the last eight games and now occupy the final playoff seed.
There is no minimizing just how astounding this stretch has been for the Celtics, especially considering just how much they leaned on Thomas while he was healthy. Only three players had higher usage percentages than Thomas over his first 10-game stint with the Celtics (Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade).
Thomas isn't on the same level as those studs, but he was being used as frequently and as effectively as them. The Celtics had a 108.9 offensive rating with Thomas on the floor, but it dropped to 95.0 with him off. They experienced a similar drop-off in the last eight games, as they rank 24th in the NBA with an offensive rating slightly under 100.
You would think that the Celtics would've fallen out of the playoff race with a low scoring output like that, but they have prevailed. Here are three reasons why their season has been saved despite Isaiah Thomas being sidelined:
1. Defense! Defense! Defense!
The Celtics have struggled on defense this season, but they have progressively gotten better and appear to be hitting their stride down the final stretch. Since Isaiah got hurt, they rank 4th in the NBA with a 96.8 defensive rating and much of the credit should be given to his replacement, second-year point guard Phil Pressey.
The Celtics are allowing only 88.5 points per 100 possessions in the last eight games with the pesky Pressey on the floor, largely due to plays like this:
Watching Pressey run the point on offense might be more taxing than riding the Bizzaro roller coaster, but his defense has frequently provided a spark off the bench. Pressey does a great job of staying in front of ball handlers by moving laterally and invading their air space. Kudos to Pressey for staying focused this season, as ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg outlined in a column earlier this month.
Jae Crowder has also been an absolute maniac on the defensive end. In the last eight games, opponents are shooting just 33 percent when defended by Crowder, which is about 12 percent worse than the league average. Crowder's ability to switch and defend multiple positions has been a vital tool for the Celtics, and it helps explain why they have experienced such a surge.
2. Evan Turner goes from zero to a hero.
While he was winning National Player of the Year honors at Ohio State University, Evan Turner earned the nickname "The Villain," but has been The Hero for the Celtics. With Thomas out, Turner has seen his usage rise about four percent and he is coming through when called upon.
The 26-year-old is averaging 14.4 points, 7.1 assists, and 4.9 rebounds over this stretch, and is doing it in efficient fashion with a 53.8 eFG percentage and 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Turner virtually willed the Celtics to victory over the Magic last week, with 24 of his 30 points coming in the fourth quarter. And he played a significant role in Monday's win over Brooklyn, notching his second triple double of the year, with 19 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds.
The versatile point forward is playing different roles for the Celtics and is performing admirably, regardless of what he's being asked to do. Jeez, who could've been crazy enough to predict that?
3. Brad Stevens, the ultimate strategist.
It's unlikely that Brad Stevens wins the NBA Coach of the Year award, but he should receive a handful of votes if the Celtics make the playoffs. The players trust Stevens because he has consistently made the right calls and formulated the proper game plans to set the team up for success, as shown in recent weeks without Thomas.
Stevens coached his team to "dig" or double team Memphis' twin towers Gasol and Randolph, they shutdown Indiana's Hibbert, and they almost managed to defeat the red-hot Thunder. Perhaps the best example of Stevens' game planning came Monday night against Brooklyn, when the Celtics unleashed a ferocious run of "stack" pick-and-roll plays that led to a dominant fourth quarter.
Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game did a sensational job of covering this play, and you can read that here. This is just another prime example of Stevens' developing genius to make timely adjustments mid-game and maximize the production of his squad.
What changes can we expect to the rotation?
Isaiah Thomas is "as close to probable as it gets" to return Wednesday night in a must-win game against Miami Heat, which means some changes will be coming to Boston's rotation. Phil Pressey was obviously the greatest beneficiary in the absence of Thomas, but plenty of other players received an uptick in both minutes and usage.
Those totals will certainly be dropped once Thomas is able to play his usual 28 to 35 minutes each night. Here is a projected look at the depth chart and minutes distribution:
Minutes will likely be adjusted depending on matchups, especially for the bigs, but last night Brad Stevens may have given a glimpse to the rotation down the final stretch. For the first time in quite a while he shortened the rotation to nine players, which eliminated Gigi Datome's minutes entirely.
Datome was already experiencing a steady decline in minutes, since other players like Jae Crowder, Evan Turner, and Marcus Smart are significantly better on defense. But since Datome can provide an offensive spark, his minutes could be extended if he shows a hot hand during short stints in the first half of games.
With the Boston Celtics completely focused on making the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Brad Stevens will need to pull the right strings down the stretch. And with such a deep roster, Stevens certainly has the flexibility to go with different players on any given night. But one thing is for sure, Isaiah Thomas' return on Wednesday will make his job a whole lot easier as the Celtics make their final push for the postseason.