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Giving Isaiah Thomas space to work

Brad Stevens has changed his sets to free up Thomas

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

A series in the NBA Playoffs boils down to adjustments and then the adjustments to those adjustments. The Celtics, in order to keep their best offensive weapons productive, have had to make some subtle changes to the way their offense is structured.

The first was to put the ball in Marcus Smart’s hands more as a playmaker on the second unit, as we covered here. The latest was far less noticeable, because the end results were something we’ve seen a lot this season, but no less impactful.

Everyone knows that when Boston needs a basket most, they put the ball in the hands of Isaiah Thomas. More often than not, Thomas is able to deliver by either scoring himself or setting up his teammates. However, in the playoffs, teams build a scheme for specific personnel and the Bulls have tried to take the ball out of Thomas’ hands. Failing that, they’ve tried to make it much harder for Thomas to get good looks if he does keep the ball.

Because of these tactics, it falls to Brad Stevens to figure out a way to free up his best offensive player. In the previous two playoffs, the Celtics have struggled, largely because they couldn’t free up IT. Other players weren’t as ready to step up and help in the past and the team is far more prepared for that now. But when it comes to winning time, you want the ball in the hands of your best player. And Stevens has figured out how to accomplish that with some small tweaks.

The first set of clips is from earlier in the series and show how Chicago was able to keep Thomas relatively under wraps.

Thomas makes the jumper, but look where Jonas Jerebko sets the screen. Right at the top of the key. IT doesn’t have much room to work and has to make an off-balance jump shot.

Again, the screen is set close to the arc. Thomas has almost no room to work and gets blocked by Jimmy Butler. But notice something else, and this is the important part, Jae Crowder is the screener instead of a big and Al Horford is camped in the corner. This will come up later.

Another small, this time Marcus Smart, sets the screen, but once again the action starts tighter to the arc. This makes it a lot easier for Butler to close on Thomas and he gets a piece of the jumper.

Now, let’s flip it to Game 5 against the Bulls. The idea for Boston is to get Thomas moving downhill, so he can explode to the basket. The best way to do this is to give him room to use his speed.

Here is where there adjustments come in. Remember how Crowder set the screen and Horford spaced to the corner in the second clip? The set is virtually the same here, with a minor tweak. Look at where Crowder sets the screen. It comes from right at the edge of the halfcourt logo. Very few players can keep up with Thomas if he gets a head of steam from there and Isaiah Canaan certainly isn’t one of them. And Horford is all the way in the corner, where he has to be guarded. Robin Lopez is completely out of the lane, leaving it wide open for Thomas.

We’re back to Horford setting the pick, but look where he sets it. He’s inside the logo. Lopez lays way back inside the arc, but he’s not stopping Thomas when he has that much space. IT throws a hesitation dribble at him (not a carry by the way!) and blows right by him for the layup.

This one is from early in the third and ends in Thomas missing a jumper. But the important part is to notice again how the action develops. Crowder sets a high screen, once again near the logo, while Horford again spaces to the corner. Thomas pulls up on Canaan and misses, but he had all the room in the world to do whatever he wanted.

On this one, Thomas picks up an assist. Subtle change here is that Crowder comes up to set the screen, again right at the logo, but fakes it and rolls early. Horford, again sitting in the corner (sensing a trend here?), is wide open because Lopez has to leave him or Thomas gets a wide open layup. End result is Horford canning an open triple.

Isaiah Thomas is a remarkable talent, who has had an MVP-level season, but at 5’9’’ he needs some help from his friends. This includes guys like Al Horford making shots, his teammates helping to free him up and his coach making modifications to give him space to work. Considering a playoff series is all about adjustments, the Celtics have made the best ones so far. Now it is up to the Bulls to counter or Boston will be moving on to the second round for the first time under Brad Stevens.

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