BOSTON – After his tenth 30-point game of the season, Isaiah Thomas had a wry smile on his face.
"We still ain’t got no foundation player," Thomas sarcastically responded when hearing the news.
With the Celtics returning to Boston after a long road trip, Isaiah Thomas was coming home with the momentum of an emerging star. The difference between an All-Star and superstar is usually the All-NBA team. So when the team kicked off the evening’s festivities with a heavy PR push to get Thomas to the All-NBA roster, the onus was on the "Little Man" to deliver.
"I just want to be great," Thomas said after the game. "I’m just going to keep going, keep grinding and keep being in attack mode. I mean, that’s what my team needs from me, and I’m going to continue to do that. My guys just put me in position to be successful, them and the coaching staff. My job’s pretty easy."
Thomas went for the jugular throughout the game, carving up a Pelicans defense that is relying on eight healthy players; three of which are centers as coach Alvin Gentry reluctantly noted before the game.
"You’ve got to have that killer’s mentality, no matter who you play," Thomas said. "When I’m playing one-on-one with my kids, I let them score a little bit, then I end up beating them at the end. So, that’s just the way it is. No matter who you’re playing, you’ve just got to keep your foot on the pedal."
Thomas kept his foot on the gas, especially with this ATO play as he overcame a three step head start on Dante Cunningham to grab the lobbed inbound and then glided through a helpless Luke Babbitt and James Ennis to hit the layup as the first half ended.
While Thomas can make a sneaky play or two every game, defenses at this point of the season are honed in on him. But his ability to change pace and direction while mataining momentum makes him pretty much impossible to stop. Just ask the Pelicans' defense, who didn't even know what to do on this simple dribble drive.
But even when you get a body in front of Thomas in the post, his flexibility and recently discovered right hand allow him to finish in pretty much any scenario.
Despite Cunningham’s 50 lbs. advantage, Thomas bowls right through him.
The Little Man has mastered the art of using contact and mid-air positioning to make any drive a decent look. When he gets by a defender, he often slows down for a moment to draw contact and bounce off of it for separation. More importantly, Thomas is able to adapt to what the defense gives him.
When the Pelicans blitzed Thomas with deep corner traps -- something that he hasn’t seen much since Cleveland shut him down with that strategy in the playoffs last year – he was able to split them and find open shooters. The degree of difficulty against New Orleans was miles below what he will see in the first round, but Thomas has continued to evolve since his last playoff series.
The new wrinkles to his game introduced after the All-Star break are sticking and becoming more effective. Whether the Celtics finish with the third seed or the sixth seed will be a matter of a game or two.
Whether Isaiah Thomas makes the All-NBA team is a matter of whether the voters have fully recognized the body of work he has built in 2016.
WILL THE CELTICS BE HEALTHY FOR THE PLAYOFFS?
Jae Crowder was back and the Celtics rotation was back to whole. Then Evan Turner suffered an eye abrasion that kept him out of Wednesday’s game. Then late in the Celtics’ win over the Pelicans, Marcus Smart took a shot to the eye that a minute later had him on all fours in pain.
Four stitches later, Smart will be ready to go Friday, sans goggles. But the question burning at the back of the Celtics’ collective brain presents a bit of a quandary. How hard do you push for the best seed possible at the risk of remaining healthy?
Marcus Smart made a high-risk play when he went straight up for a two-handed verticality block on a driving Dante Cunningham. Smart paid the price, as Cunningham busted his eye open and left him with four stitches. But considering the team’s mindset and Smart’s refusal to turn off the attacking center in his brain, it was no surprise that Smart kept playing until the pain of the hit took over. It resulted in one of the greatest give and go’s you’ll ever see, thanks to Smart launching an airball three with blood filling his eye. Stevens has given Terry Rozier and Tyler Zeller more time with the second unit to try to limit minutes across the board and in the face of Crowder’s absence. Yet the Celtics still keep suffering minor injuries.
While Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas both expressed the desire to catch the three seed from both a strategic point of view and a matter of pride and accomplishment, there is hardly much at stake.
Home court advantage would be valuable in what will likely be a six- or seven-game first round series against either the Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat. But the difference is negligible.
While the three seed would most likely mean facing the less daunting Toronto Raptors in the second round, it’s unlikely that the Celtics miracle path to the finals will go through any other cities than Toronto and Cleveland regardless of order.
So as the Celtics run the gauntlet in a three game season-ending stretch against the teams with which it is fighting for position, Brad Stevens will have to consider sitting some valuable players.
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