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Isaiah Thomas, off ball wizard

The Wizards held court in Washington by dedicating their defense to stopping Isaiah Thomas.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards - Game Three Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The last time the Celtics were at home, Isaiah Thomas made the TD Garden his playground as he poured in 53 points in a stirring overtime performance. Two nights before, his modest 33 paced a steady comeback from a 17-point deficit in Game 1. However, when the series shifted to Washington, the Wizards put the clamps on Thomas in two embarrassing blowouts. They double and triple teamed IT, grabbed and held him coming off picks, and manhandled the two-time All Star. Games 3 and 4 were gridlock that only DC can be familiar with, but now the series shifts back to Boston.

However, this tale of two cities won’t change just because of a different venue or a hometown edge. The Wizards will continue to blitz Thomas around every corner he turns on a pick and block every driving lane that opens up momentarily. For the Celtics to win two out of the next three games, they’re going to have to rely on everybody else.

However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas can’t help the team on the offensive end. With him drawing so much attention, that’s opened up the floor considerably.

Even on this simple cut into the lane as Al Horford posts up, John Wall sticks to him even though he doesn’t really pose a threat to catch a pass and finish at the rim. Thomas trots in front of Markieff Morris and Horford finds Jae Crowder for the open three.

Although the Wizards have clogged up Thomas and Horford’s two-man game, the pair has found ways to work their pick-and-roll dynamic.

This isn’t a PnR, but the principles are the same: Thomas comes off a Horford pick, draws the double team, and finds Horford open for a wide open three.

Here they are running a traditional pick-and-pop. And when the shot isn’t there, there’s much more of an onus for Horford to become more off a point forward.

Because Thomas garners so much attention, he changes the sight lines for the defense. With everybody focused on Thomas (and Horford), a little misdirection leads to an easy dunk for Amir Johnson.

More of the same again. Horford gets the ball above the break and Thomas acts as a screener. This time, it’s Crowder cutting back door for a layup.

Wash, rinse, repeat with Kelly Olynyk.

And sometimes, Thomas is just a decoy.

In this play, he’s not even on the court. He brings his help defender to the three-point line which frees up Marcus Smart and Olynyk to run pick-and-roll without the weak side defender to help.

On the subsequent play, Olynyk brings the ball to Thomas on a potential dribble hand off, but because his defender, Ian Mahinmi, is attracted to IT like a moth to light, the lane is wide open for KO to drive and finish with the and-1.

Unfortunately, plays like these were few and far between in Washington. So many of these passes were anticipated and picked off. The Celtics are going to have to trust their counters. Despite Thomas’ confidence that he’ll make adjustments and score in Game 5, the rest of the team will have to figure out how to turn 4-on-5 situations into 4-on-3 mismatches in their favor.

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