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Isaiah Thomas Closes Out January with a Royal Flush

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Isaiah Thomas completed a historic January for the Celtics with an absolute splash, scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Pistons. Also inside: A dive into a new lineup Brad Stevens beta tested in Monday’s win.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

24 points in the closing segment for the King in the Fourth was no coincidence. It was a point short of a goal, whether or not Thomas was aware, that would have put him in historic company.

Had Thomas scored one more point Monday night, he would have joined Larry Bird and Paul Pierce as the only players to average 33 points per game in a month in Celtics history. He came up one little guy short at 32.9, but his imprint on the game this year remains statistically mind blowing.

Thomas finished January averaging 9.8 points per game in the fourth quarter, the most in the NBA in the past 20 years. That’s almost a full point ahead of number two on that list, Kobe Bryant, who averaged 8.9 ppg in ‘05-’06.

He crossed the 35-point and 8-assist mark for the third time this week and season, joining just Russell Westbrook and James Harden as players to hit those marks three times this season per Basketball Reference.

Thomas has just become unguardable at the end of games.

“We blitzed him on the pick-and-rolls,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy told me. “But then they started using him off the ball and weaving him through screens and he just hit those shots.”

Thomas is freed up in crunch time in large part due to Marcus Smart’s growth as a passer. Van Gundy told me that with Smart’s improvement in ball skills, he can keep the defense focused on the ball and give Thomas time and space to run through the trees until they meet on the other side of the forest.

Brad called some really good plays to get the spacing right,” Thomas said. “We had nice spacing and things opened up for me and I just took advantage.”

Stevens was impressed with Detroit's attempts to thwart his game plan, but the King prevailed.

“I thought they did a really good job on pick-and-rolls,” Stevens said. “They adjusted to do some more switching, they blitzed once, they kind of kept us off-balance with their coverages and so we just tried to get him off the ball some.

Van Gundy conceded that scheming and game planning against Thomas has become almost futile, as he has reached a level of dominance that rises above the defense’s plan of attack.

“I didn’t do a very good job in the fourth quarter. I should have come up with something better than what we were doing. I should have had two guys on him or something. I didn’t do a good job. That one is on me; fourth quarter is on me.”

Thomas kind of agreed when asked if defensive schemes matter to him anymore.

“I don’t know, I don’t pay attention to it. I just try to execute what they’re doing to me, figure out if they are doubling or switching then attack.”

Tobias Harris was amazed by what Thomas could pull off.

“He’s crafty with the basketball, he’s a small guy but he’s very quick and he makes shots. That’s the biggest thing, he makes plays out there. Tonight he was a handful for us.”

A 41-point handful, that is. He spent another fourth quarter showered in MVP chants. Now it’s starting to look for real.

Stevens’ New Jumbo Lineup

The Celtics were finally breaking a streak Monday, when they got off to a sluggish start. They had dropped 39 and 42 points in the last two first quarters they played, so naturally things had to come back down to earth.

But then Stevens brought out a lineup that had never played together before: Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Gerald Green, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson. It was the perfect answer to the Pistons’ physicality, as they rattled off a 9-2 run in the final 2:22 of the first to take a 26-25 lead.

It worked perfectly for Marcus Smart, who assisted on the first two buckets before hitting a three to take the lead with 2.3 second left in the quarter. The lineup overmatched Detroit’s wings, who were without Drummond as a safety net, as Smart went to work in the post on Ish smith.

CelticsBlog asked Stevens why he went to that big lineup with Drummond out of the game.

“Post Marcus. That’s why. It was all about trying to post Marcus. The rest of those guys were part of the big lineup, but the reason we were big was to do that.”

Smart is the most efficient distributor out the post in the NBA, averaging 1.292 points per possession on his passes out of post-ups per Synergy. He leads a top five of Evan Turner, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant in that category. He bullies little guards like Smith, with the body control and vision to explode out of the post up or scan the scene for a cutter hitting a tight passing lane.

It was a new wrinkle to an old trick, but one that has become an answer for the Celtics during lulls in their rotation. Stevens will often to go to three Smart post-ups in a row to open the fourth quarter, but usually in a more shooter-heavy lineup. With Avery Bradley still just around the corner from his return and the Raptors in town Wednesday, look out for some more bully ball from the Celtics.