Isaiah Thomas is the backbone of the Boston Celtics, but through three playoff games the Cleveland Cavaliers have limited him by playing aggressive defense focused solely on stopping him. While Thomas averaged 22 points per game in the first two games of the series, it was due mostly to high volume.
But things unraveled when Thomas only scored five points off nine shots on Thursday. The Cavaliers contained him by pressuring him and forcing the ball out of his hands in pick-and-rolls, so Celtics head coach Brad Stevens quickly pulled the plug on his best scorer, since it just wasn't working.
With their backs against the wall down 3-0 in the series, Stevens and his staff have likely tried to devise new plays to get their best scorer involved. Here are two possible ways the Celtics could try to use Thomas today against the Cavs:
Turn Pick-and-Roll into Spot Up Chances
Thomas is one of the best pick-and-roll playmakers in the league, so the Celtics have used him heavily in that play type against the Cavaliers. He scored 0.94 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll this season, according to Synergy, but Cleveland knows what to expect and completely locked it down in Game 3.
The Cavaliers will continue blitzing Thomas on pick-and-rolls, so the Celtics should adjust and use that to their advantage. When the Cavaliers play so assertively, their wing defenders have to rotate onto a big or collapse into the paint. The Celtics should counter by having Thomas swing the ball to a teammate, who would drive with the intent of getting the ball right back to him for a catch-and-shoot three.
On the clip above versus the Grizzlies, imagine Jae Crowder in place of Eric Bledsoe. Thomas can run the high pick-and-roll, pass it to Crowder, who would then drive the closeout and kick it to Thomas for an uncontested three.
Thomas has shot over 40 percent on spot up threes the past two years, according to SportVU, which makes him one of the best pure shooters on the Celtics. But since being traded to Boston he has seen a six percent decrease in spot up chances, per Synergy.
Here Thomas runs a pick-and-roll in transition and Marcus Smart drives the closeout, forcing Thomas' defender to help. That action has left Thomas completely open throughout the series, but the Celtics have rarely swung the ball right back to him for threes. The coaching staff should make it a point to players like Smart, Avery Bradley, among others, to kick the ball back out to Thomas if they aren't able to get to the rim.
However, Thomas doesn't even need to be used in the initial action to get him the ball, provided he has another primary ball handler on the court, like Evan Turner. Even though using both of them at the same time isn't ideal, Turner is a crafty dribbler that can draw the attention of multiple defenders and kick it out accurately to Thomas.
Since Thomas is such a threatening shooter, the Cavaliers will likely closeout hard, which will give him the space to drive. Here he can score, draw fouls, or dish it to an open teammate. Getting into the bonus early would put the Cavs at a disadvantage, so trying this early in quarters could be a difference maker.
Use Thomas as a Decoy
After joining Boston, Thomas was fifth in the NBA with a usage percentage of 31.4. This ranked him amongst MVP candidates like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and LeBron James. The Celtics utilize Thomas like a superstar, so defenses treat him as such whether he has the ball in his hands or he's running through a maze of screens.
Thomas and Gigi Datome run a cross screen underneath the rim into a double screen and the Cavs divert all of their attention onto that side of the court. That left Datome open to drink a full cup of tea and read the morning newspaper before driving for the score.
This play is an extreme example, but it demonstrates just how much the Cavaliers are trying to stop Isaiah Thomas. If the pick-and-roll isn't working Sunday, the Celtics could try to make Cleveland believe that they're trying to get him going with off-screens, with the actual intent of freeing shooters like Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, or Avery Bradley.
If the Boston Celtics want any chance of being the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit, they're going to have to punch back by trying some new things with their best player, whether or not he has the ball in his hands.