After John Wall and Isaiah Thomas both posted 30-point games in their last meeting, this final match up of the season was billed as a mano-a-mano duel that could strengthen their credentials when it came to All Star reserve selections this week. In their final head-to-head match up, here's the tale of the tape: Thomas with 23 points (8-for-14, 2-for-3 from three), 9 assists and 2 turnovers, 4 rebounds, 1 steal; Wall with 8 points (3-for-11, 0-for-3 from three), 10 assists and 4 turnovers, 2 rebounds, 1 steal.
At the end of the night, Boston won in convincing fashion 116-91 and it was Thomas that made a stronger case to represent the Celtics in the mid-season classic. He stuffed the stat sheet, but what has possibly made Thomas such a success in Boston has been his team mindset. After being bounced in Sacramento and traded from Phoenix, IT4 has found a home with the Celtics because he's allowed to be himself within the framework of Stevens' system. After last night's blowout, Thomas shook off the idea that he'd go head-to-head vs. Wall in some sort of pre-All Star shoot out:
"As a team we handled business," Thomas said. "When that happens there's really no 1-on-1 action available. So we just played overall a good game and I tried to do what it takes to win the game."
One of the great things about Brad Stevens is that he designs sets to put his players where they can succeed and opposing players in situations they don't want to be in and he uses all five players on the floor to do so. Here are just a couple of examples where the Celtics try and put Thomas into areas where he can be at his best.
Thomas racked up nine assists as Boston's primary point guard and for the season, he's averaging just under 7 assists per game. But he's also effective off the ball. This is just a simple series of brush screens and pin downs to get the defense churning, but it frees up Thomas just enough for one of his two threes in the game. Thomas leads the team in USG% at 28.7%, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's creating all those opportunities with the ball in his hand. The Celtics are one of the league's best passing teams and 43.3% of Thomas' field goals are assisted. That's balance, because for what it's worth, only 17.8% of Chris Paul's and 21.6% of Russell Westbrook's field goals are assisted. Being able to utilize Thomas as a spot up shooter or a swing man increases his versatility and subsequently, his value to the team.
This is Thomas' bread and butter: pick-and-roll. He misses this shot, but check out the spacing created by his teammates and the re-screen from Amir Johnson. With the shot clock going down, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart are in the high percentage corners behind the arc. Johnson initially frees up Thomas with the pick and slip and has the presence of mind to re-screen Nene so that Thomas has a clearer path to the rim.
On the flip side, Boston made it difficult for John Wall to play his game. The Celtics have been ICEing pick-and-rolls all season in order to eliminate penetration and Wall played right into their hands:
It's fairly simple: Smart forces Wall to the sideline and Olynyk retreats to cut off the drive. Wall's forced to shoot an inefficient mid-range jumper. That was the story of Wall's thirty-three uneventful minutes. Most of his assists came in transition where he was just finding streakers and shooters on the break or hitting guys curling up from pin downs in the half court. Very little came out of his penetration. In terms of scoring, one of his field goals came on the secondary break and the other two were of these long-2 variety that Boston can live with.
The Bulls' Jimmy Butler and hometown DeMar DeRozan seem like shoe-ins in Toronto as the East's reserve back court players. The consensus has been that Thomas, Wall, and Detroit's Reggie Jackson are vying for at least one of the remaining wild card slots. For my money, between Wall and Thomas, it's a no-brainer. Wall might have the glossier resume based on the box score, but the Celtics completed a season sweep of the Wiz with Thomas as its MVP. Brad Stevens talks about players you're scared of and have to game plan against deserving to be All Stars and by that measure, Washington still hasn't figured out Isaiah Thomas.