Defenses are honing in on Isaiah Thomas when the ball is in his hands, and the potential All-Star point guard lacks support to take that attention away. Despite his career-best volume numbers (21.1 points per game on a 28.6 usage rate), Thomas has just an average 47.5 eFG%. So Brad Stevens is using a counterintuitive idea to enhance his proficiency by utilizing him more off-ball.
"One of the things I've tried to do recently with him is play him off the ball when we can and that's actually been fairly good," Stevens said to reporters on Saturday, courtesy of the Boston Globe. "So I think just being able to decide when he's got the advantage to take the advantage. And then otherwise getting himself off the ball some, because when he gets it back with a live dribble he's even more of a threat."
The Celtics made heavy use of that strategy against the Grizzlies and Thomas turned in arguably his best game of the year, with 35 points on an efficient 11-of-19 shooting, and 8 assists to only 2 turnovers.
Over the last three seasons, Thomas shoots 39.3% on catch-and-shoot triples (451 attempts), per SportVU, compared to just 31.5% off the dribble (464 attempts). It makes sense to get him more looks off the catch, since he's so much more efficient.
Thomas has fantastic vision for a point guard and employs that sense of space roaming off-ball. Here, Marcus Smart penetrates the paint and Thomas puts himself in a perfect position to receive a pass.
But when Thomas receives the ball off the catch above the break, he's even more of a threat. Sometimes the defense is scrambling, and Thomas can use his speed to his advantage.
This is exactly what Stevens was alluding to when he mentioned how Thomas' live dribble is more of a threat after he gets it back, as opposed to a slower-paced pick-and-roll against a set defense.
In the play above, Thomas' defender is closing out and he makes him pay by pulling up from mid-range. He's also outstanding at getting to the paint and drawing fouls, averaging 0.30 free throws per possession, per DX.
The Celtics can utilize Thomas in even more creative ways by running him through screens.
On this clip, Thomas races by Jared Sullinger (who misses his screen), and quickly drains a three. If the shot wasn't there, Thomas could've pivoted back the other way and drove to the basket, or reset and ran a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson.
Thomas can also receive the ball on the move and translate those opportunities into assists, like he does with this action:
Here, Thomas cuts middle and receives a dribble handoff from Johnson, who dives towards the paint. If the Grizzlies had better defended the interior, the option would've been there for a Sullinger jumper, but layups beat jumpers every single time.
The pick-and-roll will be always be Isaiah Thomas' bread-and-butter, but the Celtics are learning they can use him in lethal ways off the ball. Whether he's racing through screens, spotting up, or receiving handoffs, a mobile, dynamic Thomas isn't easy for defenses to slow down.
Until another true go-to scorer that can beat defenses off the dribble is acquired, it might benefit the Boston Celtics to continue integrating this approach moving forward.