BOSTON – Isaiah Thomas cannot stop having career nights.
Coming off an historic 52-point performance, Thomas followed it up with a career-high 15 assists Tuesday in the Celtics’ 115-104 win over the Utah Jazz. Thomas had the third 25 points and 15 assist game for the Celtics in the last 20 years according to Basketball Reference, after Rajon Rondo did it in 2009 and 2012.
Thomas extended his NBA-best 20-point streak to 19 games, the longest of his career and the longest by a Celtic since Kevin McHale had 30 in a row in 1986.
“I don’t know how much more attention he can attract, because he’s been here for two years and everyone has tried everything against him,” coach Brad Stevens said of Thomas.
Thomas has shown that he can be a dynamite scorer, but Tuesday night epitomized how he has become a dynamite point guard.
“I think it’s just all about making the right read over and over,” Stevens said. “There are guys that can figure out how to put the ball in the basket no matter what. Inevitably for all of those guys, the right read has been thought out and lived so many times, that they just make it part of a habit.”
Going against a shorthanded Jazz who were without guards George Hill, Alec Burks, and Dante Exum, Thomas took advantage of a favorable matchup against Brad Stevens’ former Butler star Shelvin Mack. While Mack is a brute of a little point guard, Thomas was able to slice around him when he wanted, with some violent crossovers left on the killing field.
But for the most part, Thomas sat back and ran the show, handing out dimes like Gerald Green at a Hot Chocolate stand. His work with Al Horford was some of their best yet, playing off each other like Miles Davis and John Coltrane before they got clean.
“I know they’re a good defensive team so when I attacked they showed more than one guy and my job was just to get the ball to my open guy,” Thomas said. “If you can find what the team isn’t taking away then you got to take advantage of it.”
Thomas knew that the Jazz’s game plan would be a little skewed toward stopping him after his explosive performance last week. But when someone shows their hand, you know exactly where to hit them.
“If they give you a lot of attention, then you just have to take what they give you and you got to find the open man,” Thomas said. “Because they can’t take away everything, so if they try to do what they can take what I bring to the game away, I got to find other ways to be an impact in the game.”
Jazz coach Quinn Snyder was impressed before the game and blown away after.
“The best plays that he made and the most impactful were when he got to the rim and he’d go up and find people,” Snyder said of Thomas. “He was finding people everywhere.”
Horford had a good night on the block, dealing with everyone from Rudy Gobert to Trey Lyles en route to 21 points in 30 minutes. Al was instrumental in trying to overload the Utah defense in an effort to open the weak side and swing the ball. Both Horford and Stevens noted that the game plan was to get the ball to touch both sides at least once on every possession. It certainly worked, as they had more points against Utah than any team this season.
Jae Crowder had perhaps his most efficient game of his career, scoring 21 points on 6-for-8 shooting and hitting all five of his threes before a late airball. Crowder is climbing up the three-point percentage leaderboards, shooting 43-percent from deep.
“I thought he was better than a 33-percent shooter last year,” Stevens said. “I think the biggest thing is that we’re trying to find the best possible shot for our team. Against a team like this, shooting through Gobert is not always the best answer. So you’ve got to figure out how to space him and attack him.”
Rudy Gobert was a terror on the offensive glass, with five of his 13 rebounds giving the Jazz the second chance opportunities that have held the Celtics back at times this year. But with Crowder’s efficiency and Thomas’ all-star level all-around performance, the Celtics hung on comfortably. Horford was called to play out of his usual routine, working his back-to-the-basket game and defending ball handlers.
“I think the biggest thing [against Utah] is you gotta be mobile. Whether you’re big or small, you gotta be mobile,” Stevens said. “It was probably unique for Al to guard the high pick-and-roll on the guy with the ball. We saw a lot of that against Miami, the way they inverted their offense.”
Horford and Amir Johnson got caught out on the perimeter a lot, especially with guys like Trey Lyles and Derrick Favors being able to pound the ball in or shoot from the midrange. The Jazz looked like they were close to closing the gap, but then Isaiah answered on one end while the defense held it down on the other.
“I thought we just looked like we had a little pep in our step tonight, and that was a good thing,” Stevens said. “You know, different times in the schedule, different challenges that it throws you, but I think that – the greatest example of that was not only the way we shot the ball, both Jae and the rest of the team, but some of the defensive stops late.
“I thought Amir (Johnson) had three and four of the best perimeter defensive stops that I’ve seen him make and that was encouraging because we were switching because they were small and we were big and if you can play big and switch, that’s a good thing.”
For Horford, the night was a lot of sitting back and watching the Isaiah Thomas show.
“I think the way teams are defending, we want to get layups,” Horford said. “But we look for those threes and especially the open ones. Those are the ones you want to take because long twos are not very good, but in this league you have to be able to shoot the three ball.”
Thomas was annoyed after the game that he didn’t get Eastern Conference Player of the Week over John Wall. While of course noting that Wall is his friend, the irony that Wall’s double-doubles put him over the top was not lost on Thomas’ statline.