Before the NBA Playoffs began, Danny Ainge said the Boston Celtics "can be taken out of our game too easily...We go through these offensive droughts. We haven't made enough shots consistently." That was put on display in Game 5 as the Hawks swarmed every single Isaiah Thomas screen, and no one could seem to buy a bucket.
"Other guys have to step up and make plays. That's what it comes down to," Thomas told reporters after the game. "If they try to do again in Game 6, it comes down to the other guys making plays."
Thomas is right that others have to many plays, but so does he. He finished with only eight "assist chances," according to SportVU, down from his average of 12.9 per game this season. That's not all his fault, since the Hawks wouldn't give him space to breathe.
Part of the reason Thomas didn't have room to operate was the lack of spacing, but part of it was because the Hawks showed, trapped, or doubled Thomas on nearly every pick-and-roll. In simpler terms, there were five sets of eyes on Thomas anytime he touched the ball.
Here's an excerpt of my original article from About.com
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"I gotta figure out ways to beat it and I will. I’ll be ready for Game 6," said Thomas. He was then asked how he could beat the pressure on the pick-and-roll. "Maybe you don’t call for a pick and take it yourself. I’ll watch film tonight and see what I gotta do to make adjustments."
Hmm. "Don’t call for a pick" might sound like a throwaway statement by Thomas, but is it really? If it turns into a half court game, then spreading the floor and running more frequent isolations for Thomas could give him room the create offense on his own.
That goes against the Celtics’ typical philosophy of a pace-and-space, high pick-and-roll, motion offense. They rarely ever run isolations, even for Thomas. Only eight percent of Thomas’ possessions this season came in the isolation, according to Synergy via NBA.com. But Thomas was superb in those chances, scoring 0.97 points per possession, which ranks in the 83rd percentile of all NBA players.
Thomas hasn’t fared well as an isolation scorer this series against Atlanta, since they still swarm him anytime he attacks the rim and a number of his shots have been blocked. But he’s also gotten to the free throw line a few times, and getting the Hawks into foul trouble is a bonus itself.
Running more isolation might seem counterintuitive, and maybe it is. But there have been moments in this series against the Hawks that suggest he'd be more effective going one-on-one, driving into the paint with a full head of steam, and then kicking the ball out to his teammates.
The Celtics are at their best when they get the ball moving side-to-side, and that's precisely what happened in both clips above, with Thomas driving middle and kicking the ball out to the left side of the Hawk. Look at how the Hawks still focus entirely on Thomas, but get caught in rotations that leave relatively open shooters on the perimeter.
By comparison, in a pick-and-roll Thomas will tend to have the screen defender breathing down his neck when he drives or probes. This isn't to say the Celtics should stop running pick-and-rolls with Thomas--they shouldn't--but picking their spots with isolations might create advantageous opportunities.
One type of pick-and-roll that might work is a 1-2 or 1-3 pick-and-roll, with Marcus Smart or Evan Turner setting the screen for Thomas. The Celtics did this on a few occasions in Game 5 with Smart, and the Hawks looked willing to switch the screen. If they continue to do that in Game 6, that could put a defender like Kyle Korver onto Thomas in a one-on-one situation. That's an obvious advantage for the Celtics and something they could exploit.
No matter what happens, it'll be fascinating to observe what type of changes Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics make in Game 6.