With the Celtics clinging to a 97-96 lead with 4:39 left in the game, the ghosts of clutchness past started to take their seats in the Garden to haunt Boston's final possessions. Earlier in the week, ESPNBoston's Chris Forsberg documented their struggles this season:
The Celtics are now 11-14 in what the league defines as clutch games (when the score is within five points in the final five minutes). Boston's .417 winning percentage in those games puts the team tied for 23rd in the league, matched by, gulp, the 11-win Brooklyn Nets.
Yes, the combined overall win-loss record of the teams that are tied or worse than Boston in clutch win percentage is 120-262. None of the eight teams that comprise that record currently project as playoff-bound. It's essentially the worst of the worst in the NBA, teams with a winning percentage of a mere .314.
These are the growing pains of a young team rebuilding, but on Friday night, they seemed to put their past behind them and everything and everybody came together to close out Chicago in a must-win home game after a demoralizing road trip. Stevens closed with his starters--Isaiah Thomas/Avery Bradley/Jae Crowder/Jared Sullinger/Kelly Olynyk--but it was Isaiah Thomas that came up big (again) in the clutch. Again, as Forsberg points out, Thomas hasn't been the problem:
Thomas is averaging 37.9 points per 36 minutes in crunch time, ranking him fourth in the NBA behind only Curry, Jackson and James. But Thomas' field goal percentage (46.6) is the best of that bunch, and he takes care of the ball better than that pack, too (while each of those players averages 4-plus turnovers per 36 minutes, Thomas is at just 1.8, a ridiculous number for a point guard who runs the offense in late-game situations).
After the game, Brad Stevens noted that "a lot of guys made plays, but I thought Isaiah got into the teeth of the D a lot in the last 4 minutes." Fred Hoiberg used Aaron Brooks to slow down IT4, but in the final minutes, Thomas was unstoppable. Their are few individual advantages that the Celtics can rely on at the end of games and one of them is Thomas' speed.
With a one-point lead, Thomas caught the Bulls' defense sleeping and drove past Brooks to extend the lead. Knowing how crafty Brad Stevens is, it could have been by design to have the rest of the team seemingly loafing above the break, but it's still Thomas' sheer speed that gets him to the rack for an easy lay up.
After the teams exchanged missed shots, Thomas and Olynyk ran pick-and-roll. Thomas stretches out Mirotic to force the switch and when he can't find a lane, he lobs it to the taller Olynyk who has Brooks on the block. Kelly's come on over the last two weeks and as his confidence grows, the game has slowed down for him. Even with a clear mismatch, KO a year ago or even earlier in the season might have chucked up a fall away with Gasol helping down or even turned over the ball with a pump fake. Last night, he didn't force a thing and made a calm bounce pass to Sullinger for the lay up.
Another speed drive from Thomas here. After Avery swings the ball, that slight crack in the D with the ball moving side-to-side plus Thomas' hesitation dribble is just enough room for Isaiah to get into the paint and finish with the reverse. Bradley gets the assist and Thomas gets the bucket, but Olynyk deserves some credit. Sullinger is really good at this whenever Crowder drives, but watch Kelly keep Taj Gibson on his back long enough for Thomas to go baseline. That's good smart basketball.
Brooks wasn't going to get burned again, so he denies Thomas the ball at the two minute mark. Now it's AB's turn to make a play. He stops on a dime and shakes Rose and with the help of a Sully screen, he hits his patented mid-range. Typically, Stevens has had another ball handler in the lineup like Smart or Turner to allow Thomas to work off ball, so it's nice to see Bradley take matters into his own hands.
The pace-and-space, read-and-react offense is all about forcing the defense to make decisions all the time. After an initial pick-and-pop doesn't free up Thomas, Sullinger immediately moves into a dribble hand off and cuts to the rim. With Rose behind the play and Gasol on skates, Thomas calmly drives and makes the hook pass to Sullinger for the easy two.
The outcome of the game is pretty much decided here, but I just wanted to throw in another highlight of Kelly's development. In January, he's been so much better at putting the ball on the floor and making things happen for himself and his teammates because of his versatility. He misses the lay up (and for what it's worth, Sullinger grabbed the offensive rebound), but it's just another sign that the third-year player is finally playing to his potential.
Thomas was the catalyst for much of the clutch Friday night, but the rest of the team came up big, too. And let's not forget about the defense. From 4:58 to 0:39 in the fourth quarter, the Celtics forced 2 turnovers and kept the Bulls relatively out of the paint. They shot five long jumpers and were limited to only 2 points over 4+ minutes without Amir Johnson, their designated rim protector.
Boston finished the night with a 108.7 offensive rating and a 95.8 defensive rating after completing a 1-2 road trip where the team was great offensively but a sieve on defense. They generated a ton of open looks (44 uncontested FGA's) and had a defender contesting 53 of Chicago's shots and won the turnover battle 20-12. It's one game, but with seven very winnable games coming up on the schedule, it's good to see the team not only finding their identity, but playing consistently with it.