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How the Wizards are defending Isaiah Thomas

In Thomas’ post-game presser, he talked about how Washington was triple-teaming him and vowed to figure it out before Game 4.

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

In the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 2, Isaiah Thomas was seemingly unstoppable. Al Horford would peel off Thomas’ defender with a high pick and Thomas would go one-on-one with Marcin Gortat or Markieff Morris. It didn’t matter who covered him. He’d get to that left hand and flip in an impossible shot at the rim or dance around the free throw line for an easy 15-20 footer.

For Washington, it seemed like an overreaction to Boston’s hot shooting in Game 1 when they hit a franchise-high nineteen three pointers and erased a 17-point deficit. In Game 2, they stayed home on the Celtics’ shooters and instead, allowed Thomas to beat them and he did.

However, on Thursday night in D.C., Scott Brooks made yet another defensive adjustment and dedicated Washington’s defense to limiting IT. When asked what tweaks Brooks made to limit Thomas to 13 points, he said simply, “they had three guys on me so I couldn’t really do anything...they were very aggressive in pick-and-rolls and me coming off down screens.”

What was strange was that in the first quarter, the Celtics didn’t seem interested in carrying over some of that Game 3 momentum with Thomas on the ball. Here are the offensive triggers for the half court sets in the first six minutes of the game:

Most of them involve Thomas crossing half court and getting the ball to Al Horford or Jae Crowder to initiate the offense or running their weave motion. Thomas was often a decoy, drifting into corners or staying between the circles. After it was so effective in Game 2, they ran very few picks with Thomas as the ball handler in order to spring him loose towards the rim.

It was a curious start after Thomas torched Washington for 53 points two nights before. Maybe Isaiah’s bridge was already bothering him. Maybe Brad Stevens wanted to get everybody else involved so that the defense would loosen up before unleashing IT later in the game. Regardless, it seemed like they wasted half a quarter of Thomas’ playing time.

But when Thomas came into the game for his second stint at the end of the first quarter and into the second, Thomas was more aggressive with the ball in his bands, but the Wiz were waiting. With a 20+ point lead, they weren’t going to give Isaiah room for another comeback. Here’s a good example of Washington’s trying to prevent Thomas Time:

With Thomas looking to initiate the offense, he draws the attention of his defender, John Wall, Marcin Gortat, and Bradley Beal. Gortat is prepared to retreat on a pick-and-roll and Beal is patrolling a potential driving lane for the left-handed Thomas. Horford sets a flare screen to free up Bradley instead of picking off Wall and Avery misses a three.

If Thomas and Horford are going to get their pick-and-roll/pop game working, they’ll need to attack the weak side and Horford is going to have to take advantage of Washington overloading on Thomas.

Horford can pop out for a three.

Or drive (and kick) with the defense retreating. The onus is going to be on Al to be a playmaker in Game 4. He averaged 6.5 assists per game vs. the Bulls and dished out 10 dimes in Game 1 against the Wizards, but in the last two games, he’s had six total.

Stevens hinted yesterday that the starting lineup could be changed yet again. He said, “I think that we just have to find the best group for us to complement one another against their best group.” If the Wizards key in on Thomas again AND John Wall continues to cut up the Celtics, that could mean starting small with the IT&D lineup and going with Marcus Smart.

So far in the playoffs, a back court of Smart and Thomas is a +10 over 176 minutes with a 0.9 NetRtg. That doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but it does add an A+ defender on Wall and for IT’s sake on offense, another ball handler. This worked in last year’s series against the Hawks and we’ve seen some success with it this year.

In that post-game presser above, Thomas assured Celtics fans that he’d make the necessary adjustments and that everything was fine. Outside of all the technicals on Thursday, there was an easy calm to the Celtics, like they knew that despite a 20-0 first quarter run that buried them, they had the right game plan to beat Washington. Crowder said after practice on Saturday, “it’s just about having a different mindset moving on to Game 4. Imposing our will more and earlier in the game, not playing from behind, not playing hesitant and not playing on our heels.”

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