After Tuesday's blowout loss in Game 2, the internet was on fire with hot takes on how Avery Bradley's absence is hurting Boston and why the Celtics put together the worst playoff first quarter in franchise history. There was Matt Moore's takedown at CBSSports.com pointing to the team's lack of shooting with Bradley and Kelly Olynyk out with injuries. Thanks, Captain Obvious. SBNation's Yaron Weitzman cherry picked a few possessions where the team missed open threes or moved the ball around and unfortunately committed a 24-second violation. Zach Lowe provided the most measured analysis of Game 2, crediting Atlanta's bend-don't-break defense and ability to snuff out drives and keep Boston on the perimeter. After such a crushing loss, the morning after can be brutal, and the blogging world was none too kind.
Hey, the Celtics missed shots. Yes, they're one of the worst shooting teams coming into the playoffs, but they're not this anemic. Getting matched up with the second-best defense in the league that protects the paint doesn't help, but they're getting looks and just not knocking them down.
The most glaring slump has been from Isaiah Thomas. After leading the team in scoring this year and completing arguably the most efficient season of his career, IT4 is only 12 for 36 so far and had more turnovers than assists in Game 2. Atlanta has keyed in on Boston's All-Star, and even when he's getting uncontested looks, he's only shooting 3 for 16. It's been a frustrating first round for Thomas, but he's remained positive about the Celtics' chances of coming back and, even more so, scoffed at the idea that the Hawks are a "scary defensive team":
"They are quick to the ball. You see an opening, and once you get to the hole there's two or three guys around you," Thomas said. "Give them credit on that. But I haven't thought of Atlanta as a scary defensive team where you have to second guess yourself on getting your shot blocked, like with a guy like DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside - (players) like that. They're good at it, and we just have to either finish it off to a big or a drive and kick. Either a pump fake or make the adjustment."
Thomas is encouraged by the looks that they're getting and says it's just a matter of making shots which will lead to more driving lanes, but the Celtics' problems could go beyond seeing the ball go through the net. If the Hawks continue to stifle Thomas--not unlike what Cleveland did last postseason--should Boston consider making more adjustments? Stevens seems open to tinkering with the game plan, but it could take a larger overhaul to make a significant impact.
In Lowe's piece, he mentions Boston starting the second half with Marcus Smart as the primary ball handler in three consecutive PnRs and moving Thomas off the ball and, in effect, to the shooting guard position. It was a deliberate move to get the defense moving and sinking in before Thomas even touched the ball.
It was just a simple curl route by Thomas to the weak side to eliminate Jeff Teague as a help defender draw attention to Thomas while Smart and Johnson attacked the paint. It seems like a gimmick because Thomas has been the starting point guard all year with Bradley as his backcourt partner at the 2. But by inserting Smart into the starting lineup (and adding Evan Turner to the now small-ball lineup), it's something that Brad Stevens has to explore more.
It's not like this was the first time in Game 2 that Thomas played off ball. In the first half, the Celtics ran a set that usually would get Bradley an open look.
Thomas dives into the paint, loses Teague in a scrum of screeners, and pops out for an open corner 3. He misses it, but it's a good look. Thomas shot a whopping 48.5% from the corners this season. Running these Ray Allen-type plays where the shooter seemingly gets a screen from every teammate on the floor shouldn't stop there. All the pin down screens and dribble hand offs that Boston utilizes to get Bradley open could easily be reproduced for Thomas.
If Thomas doesn't get that shot off, it's also a good idea for him to get the ball at the baseline. It seems counterproductive to get your best driver in a corner, but if he can get a step on his defender and the help defense is coming from above the break, it could be enough space to generate some offense.
With Paul Millsap and Al Horford starting near the free throw line, Thomas is in effect working behind them. He can shield his shot with his body because he's not driving at them. Thomas is ultimately fouled on this play, but that baseline drive creates several good looks and a scrambling Hawks' defense that could be taken advantage of.
It's not just about getting Thomas in the right space. A little pace helps, too. When Thomas is a ball-handler negotiating a pick, defenses can zone in on him, but if he's off the ball, they need to keep track of him and the ball at the same time.
Usually, it's the hard-driving Jae Crowder that tries to take advantage of a sleeping defender. Crowder turns into a running back that sees a small crack in the offensive line. For Thomas, it's about speed. In that split second where Teague's eyes turn from Smart to Thomas and his feet start to square up, Isaiah is already driving passed him and attacking the rim. Look how open Smart and Crowder are behind the arc. They'll have to make those shots for Thomas' drive to matter, but again, those are good looks.
Here's another where Thomas, Crowder, and Sullinger read Thabo Sefolosha's aggressive ball denial and Thomas goes back door for the and-1.
And a final GIF that combines a Bradley DHO from Jared Sullinger that leads to a Smart dribble penetration and then a kick out to Thomas.
If the roles are reversed between Smart and Thomas, maybe Smart doesn't command the respect of Kent Bazemore's help defense or Teague's show when Thomas nears the three-point line.
Thomas credits Atlanta's recovery speed as one of their biggest strengths on offense, but he's pretty quick himself. The Celtics need to capitalize on that. All year, Stevens has used Thomas as the primary spark plug to Boston's offense, but with Bradley out and the Hawks game-planning against him, making Isaiah more of a two-guard could be more than just a tiny tweak, but a necessary queen sacrifice in this chess match.