Look up and down the Celtics roster and you’ll quickly realize it’s not exactly a who’s who of three-point marksmen. Sure, there’s Avery Bradley (40.9%) and Jae Crowder (42.6%). But beyond that pair, Kelly Olynyk (38.1%) and Isaiah Thomas (38.4%) are the only others knocking down at least 38% of their 3s so far this season.
Still, Boston has quietly become one of the league’s most efficient outfits from beyond the arc. Shooting 36.8%, the Celtics currently rank seventh in the league in three-point accuracy while jacking up more treys than all but three other teams.
It’s easy to look over the numbers and jump to the conclusion that Boston is simply experiencing a fluke season from distance. They’ve never finished any better than 27th in three-point percentage in the Brad Stevens era, nor have they placed in the top half in both makes and attempts.
But they’ve also never had this version of Thomas before.
The Celtics point guard is having a career year and not just from long range. He’s second in the league in scoring (29.0 points per game) and is putting an immense amount of pressure on opposing defenses with his ability to get to the rim almost at will.
Oftentimes, you’ll see the words “gravitational pull” used to describe how effective a three-point shooter is at drawing defensive attention out to the perimeter. It’s not an official metric, but the better the shooter, the greater the gravitational pull. In that regard, despite his size, Thomas is Jupiter. However, rather than attracting defenders out to the perimeter, he forces defenders to collapse into the paint in order to deter his drives, where he leads the league in points via drives per game with 9.7. In turn, this leaves his teammates wide open spotting up from beyond the arc.
Take this play against the Brooklyn Nets for example.
Thomas receives the ball from Jonas Jerebko and quickly beats his man off the dribble to make his way into the teeth of the defense, where four Nets players immediately shift their attention from their own men to Thomas. Instead of positioning himself between the ball and his man, Luis Scola swipes at the ball while Brook Lopez rotates over from Amir Johnson to provide help. Sean Kilpatrick, who has Terry Rozier, does the right thing and slides in front of Johnson to prevent Thomas from dumping it off to him for an easy layup, but that leaves Rozier wide open in the corner, where Thomas finds him for the three.
A similar sequence occurs here against the Charlotte Hornets.
Thomas comes off an Al Horford screen and heads straight for the basket. As he turns the corner, all five Hornets direct their attention to him, leaving Bradley completely alone above the break for three.
The Celtics score 1.184 points per possession when Thomas passes to the spot-up man as the pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy. It’s plays like these that help explain why so many Celtics are shooting much better from beyond the arc when assisted by Thomas.
Of course, it goes without saying that this wouldn’t be possible if the guys on the receiving end of these passes weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Crowder, himself, is shooting a ridiculous nine percentage points better than his career average. And essentially swapping out Jared Sullinger’s 28.2% mark from last year with Al Horford’s (33.3%) has given the rest of Boston’s shooters more space to work with.
As has been the case over the last few years, the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts with the Celtics’ long range shooting in 2016-17. It’s just hard to imagine the Celtics would be experiencing this kind of quantum leap with a version of Thomas more on par with his career numbers.