CHICAGO — Brad Stevens still can’t believe it. Isaiah Thomas has brought himself and his team back from the brink.
“What he’s been through and the day-to-day, it’s been unfathomable the way that he’s performed on the court. I mean, it’s been really incredible.”
Thomas flew blindly through the motions in the series opener, operating on muscle memory and a clouded mind that didn’t have enough active synapses for doubt or hesitation. He got stuck in fifth gear in game 2, forcing himself into traffic and suffering the consequences of his turnovers.
But Gerald Green’s entry to the starting lineup has cleared the way for Thomas to operate with room, as the tragic haze over his life is beginning clear just enough for the competitor to burst through.
“Being here is what makes me, I guess, sane,” Thomas said in his first press conference since his sister Chyna passed last Saturday.
The Celtics have wrinkled lineups and their offensive approach to pull Robin Lopez away from the rim and neutralize him. It is working increasingly well now that Thomas is back to being the mini Tasmanian devil.
“Not one man can guard me and that’s just the confidence I have,” Thomas said to open his presser with a wry smile.
The hesitation moves that had Fred Hoiberg storming out of press conferences are creating a familiar advantage, albeit through a different method. Stevens has thrown a curveball to his most common actions, straying away from elbow DHOs to staggered high screens using both bigs, or classic 1-5 high pick-and-rolls for Thomas with Al Horford or Kelly Olynyk.
“Brad and the coaching staff figured what they were doing out and we wanted to set picks as high as possible and then kind of let me go downhill,” Thomas said.
One of the main reasons the DHOs weren’t working as well in the previous games was simply that Thomas’s branded combination of typhoon speed and gravity-defying body control was on autopilot. Thomas comes around hand offs, stomps on the brake and fires off a 24-footer as well as anyone not named Curry. But this is an extremely difficult shot, as he has to somehow keep the ball straight on target while inertia is trying to pull his body to the the fifth row.
They screen well on the elbows in tight spaces, but the previous games had seen Thomas running into traffic and leaving his feet to bail out, causing frequent turnovers. Since pulling the screens out a few feet further, the Bulls have to allow for more space to not open up the lane and allow the ball over the top to wings attacking backdoor.
Giving him actions with the ball allowed him to bide his time to pick his spot and attack in rhythm off the dribble. Using staggered screens forces the perimeter defenders to switch to the screeners, often forcing the center to zone up the space past the second screen. This is where Thomas met Lopez, put him on his heels, and hit back against the Bulls run to close the gap in the second half.
Thomas could attack Lopez if he stepped up to the three-point line. When Lopez sagged deeper, Thomas would advance the dribble and then hit Horford on the roll. Staggered screens often means the defense has to rotate down a weak-side corner defender to cover the second screener. With Rajon Rondo out, the Bulls don’t have that defensive coordinator on the floor to call out these rotations. This led to easy looks on the roll for Horford.
“We just wanted to spread the floor out, give him space, let him create,” Jae Crowder said. “I feel like at the time, they didn’t have an answer for that. We had shooters everywhere, we had Al [Horford] rolling to the basket, so we felt like we really had rhythm offensively.”
The Bulls started Isaiah Canaan in the second half in an attempt to match up with Thomas and stay fast. It was working, as the Bulls were steadily chipping away at the Celtics’ consistent double-digit lead when Thomas hit the bench at the 7:42 mark. Canaan had just hit a three off a Thomas offensive foul, sparking a 12-0 Bulls run to take their first lead of the game as Thomas checked back in. This was displeasing to the King in the Fourth, who decided to begin his reign early.
“I just wanted to attack,” Thomas said when CelticsBlog asked what he saw when he would come around the staggered screen and meet Lopez on the three-point line. He then took a little dig at Hoiberg’s carrying complaints. “I knew if I got a, ‘live dribble,’ and got space to go downhill, it’s tough to guard and that’s with anybody who can handle the ball and shoot the ball.”
Thomas’s role for his team all year has been to elevate them singlehandedly when the opponent was closing in. This was the ultimate example, where a loss would put the series on the brink. He responded with an incredible 16-5 run in the final four minutes of the third, scoring 10 points at the rim or line while assisting for three layups. It was one of the great runs of his career, a reminder to the NBA universe that he is a truly great player.
“It didn’t go our way in Boston, but the guys were resilient enough to come back and tie this up,” Stevens said. “We have a long way to go, but what [Thomas] has done has been remarkable.”
Brad Stevens is hyped up as being a brilliant coach for his consistently effective ATO plays and his ability to drive his roster overachieve. But he is an excellent game manager who has made several adjustments through the series to regain control. Stevens sought to eliminate the disruptive advantage of Robin Lopez’s rebounding and did it with his point guard. Rather than figure out how to beat Lopez on the glass, he made Lopez defend the three-point line by going small and utilizing Horford as a screener 30 feet out.
“Coach called the right plays and we just executed during that tough time,” Thomas said. “They were going on their run. They had all the momentum and we just settled down and locked in.”
At this point, the Bulls appear defeated by Thomas’s imposition. Hoiberg used his entire post-game press conference to detail how Thomas commits a carrying violation, while Jimmy Butler responded in frustration to a question about stopping Thomas by admitting they can’t do it.
“I guess if nothing has worked, then what’s point of even talking about it?” Butler said in his press conference. “Obviously, you think he’s unguardable. Nothing works.”
Game 4 was the night where Butler put the team on his back, rested during timeouts and technicals as he described it, and still came up well short. At this point, it appears nothing will work to beat Thomas and the rejuvenated Celtics.