The Boston Celtics are heading back to the postseason for the second consecutive season, yet this year feels a bit different.
A year ago this team rode the wave of a late-season surge to an unexpected playoff berth as the No. 7 seed in a watered-down Eastern Conference. Despite playing as well as anyone down the stretch, the Celtics were still a 40-win team that had the privilege of being the first obstacle in the path of a juggernaut Cleveland Cavaliers team on their way to the Finals. The happy-to-be-here Celtics were promptly swept in the opening round, gaining little more than the valuable experience of playing on the postseason stage.
This year, we head into the postseason with an entirely different outlook. This time we know we belong, and more importantly, we know we have a chance to win at least one round.
So what's changed in the past year? The only new rotation player expected to receive significant minutes in the playoffs is Amir Johnson. A full season together has allowed the core of this roster to form a cohesive unit that wasn't fully formed at this time last year. Then, of course, there is the natural progression of some of their younger players. These are all factors, but they don't move the needle quite enough to inspire confidence that this year's postseason run won't be another one-and-done.
Isaiah Thomas does.
You need stars to win in the playoffs. You need a guy that can carry the team on his back even when the opponent has time to plan for ways to shut them down over the course of a seven-game series. For the Celtics, Thomas is that guy.
He's often overlooked due to his diminutive size, but Thomas has made the leap from being a spark plug off the bench to a legitimate All-Star. He started to come into his own following the trade that sent him to Boston last season, but this year he has taken his game to new heights (honestly, that wasn't meant as a short joke).
Heading into the final game of the regular season Wednesday night, Thomas is averaging a career-high 22.2 points, which ranks fourth in the East. This increase in scoring comes in part due to getting to the free throw line at a career-high rate of 6.6 attempts per game, where he converts at a well above-average rate of 87 percent. If you exclude the select few big men that are sent to the line solely due to their inability to hit even 50 percent of their shots from the charity stripe, Thomas would be among the top-10 players in the league in drawing contact that puts them at the line.
The advanced stats also support Thomas's case for being a star. He's tied for 10th in usage rate at 29.5, signifying his importance to running the offense. He set a new career best with a 21.53 PER that puts him inside the top 20 in the league among players that logged at least 30 minutes per game, and his 13.7 Estimated Wins Added ties him for 18th in the league.
The Celtics offense under the guidance of head coach Brad Stevens has always thrived on ball movement and getting stops on defense that lead to baskets in transition. That will remain a key for the Celtics, but it becomes more difficult against stingier defenses that are locked in during the playoffs. In order to win a round in the postseason it's essential to have a star that can take over a game when necessary.
A year ago, there was uncertainty as to whether the Celtics had that type of player on the roster. With the emergence of Thomas this year, we now know that we do, which is the biggest reason why the Celtics will have at least a puncher's chance of making a playoff run this year.