In the 2015 NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics were a surprising upstart. They made the playoffs on the back of Isaiah Thomas, who Danny Ainge had acquired at the trade deadline. Facing off against prohibitive favorites in the Cleveland Cavaliers, the series went about as expected. The Cavs swept Boston, but the Celtics were well ahead of schedule in the rebuild timeline.
One question came out of that series though that has remained with Boston ever since: Can the Celtics win in the playoffs with Isaiah Thomas as their main offensive weapon? Thomas averaged just 17.5 points per game in that series and turned the ball over 3.5 times per game. He shot just 33 percent from the floor, and without other weapons around him, the Cavaliers dispatched Boston with relative ease.
In 2016, against the Atlanta Hawks, things were more evenly matched, but Boston fell in six games. Thomas was again held relatively in check, as he shot 39.5 percent. With Avery Bradley, arguably Boston’s second-best offensive player, out due to a severe hamstring injury, the Celtics again didn’t have the weapons to keep up offensively.
This year, things have been different. Thomas is playing at another level, Bradley is healthy, Al Horford is in the fold and others have improved their games. Yet Cleveland was still effective against the Celtics in the regular season. The Cavaliers won three of four games, including a blowout loss in the last matchup when the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference was thought to be on the line. But despite the 3-1 margin, Boston was more competitive than expected.
With more talent around Thomas, the idea was that the Cavs would have trouble trapping him, and if they did, the Celtics’ other players would step up. As you can see below, Cleveland has still had some success.
Boston runs the pick-and-roll action right the top of the key. Amir Johnson sets the screen and he’s a relative non-threat from the outside, especially in a spot where he would have to handle the ball. The Cavs trap Thomas hard, Kyrie Irving lets Johnson go, while Channing Frye steps up and uses his length to force a turnover.
There is a lot happening here, and none of it is good for the Celtics. Thomas is coming off the ball while being defended by Iman Shumpert. Jonas Jerebko screens for Thomas, while Kelly Olynyk executes a handoff to Thomas and rolls to the paint. Kevin Love, who was guarding Olynyk, stays up to trap Thomas, as Shumpert comes through the screen to provide the secondary help. Richard Jefferson drops way off of Jerebko to pick up the rolling Olynyk. The result of the play is another turnover.
The Celtics have made some things work, however. In their lone victory against the Cavs this season, Thomas had a big scoring night with 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field. He was able to work the offense better because of the sets and personnel.
This clip shows Thomas and Horford running a quick-hitting handoff. Thomas passes to Horford and immediately cuts hard off him, getting the ball back. Because Horford has to be respected as a shooter, as do Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown on the opposite side of the floor, there is no big-man help sagging into the paint to stop Thomas. Kyrie Irving could have helped, but players are taught not to help off the strong-side corner, so he sticks with Marcus Smart. Good floor balance and spacing creates this basket.
Thomas and Johnson run pick and roll here, but with some wrinkles. Crowder and Horford space way out to the corners, with Bradley at the opposite wing. This pulls Tristan Thompson and LeBron James away from the paint. Thomas gets the switch, and there is no way Frye is sticking with him off the dribble. Irving gives half-help, but he’s not leaving Bradley open for a wing three. All that stands between IT and the hoop is Iman Shumpert, who isn’t much of a deterrent in the paint.
Thomas also had some good moments as a passer against Cleveland as well, which is important for when the Cavs do force him to give the ball up.
Love and Shumpert trap IT, much like in the second clip above. But look who else is on the floor: Crowder and Green are in the corners, while Bradley is on the wing. Horford is the roll man. None of the help defenders can leave their men, because it would give up an open 3-point look. And Horford is able to finish with no one around him.
It isn’t the prettiest finish, but when does Amir Johnson ever finish pretty? And getting the hoop is all that matters. Frye and J.R. Smith trap Thomas, but he quickly splits it with the bounce pass. Because James is on Crowder on the corner and Irving is dropping off Bradley to take away Horford, Johnson gets an easy shot over Love. This one is important because of the spacing and decisiveness of the pass from Thomas. He doesn’t wait too long to give up the ball. He hits Johnson with a catchable pass and he gets an easy finish.
The Celtics can’t afford to have anything but crisp, smart play against the Cavaliers. Cleveland is simply too talented to get by with anything less. The difference between the playoff matchup in 2015 and 2017 is night and day, as Boston has far more talent this time around. And Brad Stevens has figured out how to free up his best player. Expect a new wrinkle or two that we haven’t seen as well. Those two factors alone will make all the difference, as the Celtics won’t get swept this time around.