With a win last night against the vaunted Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics reinforced their position as the second best team in the Eastern Conference. At the heart of their win was, once again, their diminutive leader, Isaiah Thomas. The NBA’s fourth quarter specialist had seven points -- giving him 25 for the night -- and an assist over a five-minute stretch in crunch time that put the Warriors away.
Under the guidance of head coach Brad Stevens, Thomas has taken his game to another level in Boston. Allowed to leave Sacramento and traded out of Phoenix -- two of the league’s more dysfunctional and sorry franchises -- to imagine that Thomas would play a central role for a team with a 41-24 record is a shocking development. Yet with a player continually getting better and a head coach showing a knack for getting the most out of flawed and miscast players coming together, Thomas and the Celtics are both on the rise. We’ll take a look at how Thomas and Stevens have combined to make something special out in Boston.
For years, James Harden has been considered the player basketball quants would design in a lab. Perhaps because he started his career with the label of a volume scorer, it’s obscured the fact that Thomas has become a hyper-efficient scoring machine. If you’re looking for a singular reason that Thomas has morphed from fun-to-watch, scoring machine to an MVP, it’s his 3-point shooting.
Thomas is currently averaging a whopping 8.5 attempts per game -- over two and a half more per game than his previous season high. When players go up in volume, they typically drop in percentage. That has not been the case with Thomas this season. He’s shooting an impressive 38.3 percent from deep on those 8.5 attempts, which would mark another career high.
The accuracy Thomas is displaying on that many chucks from deep per game would be impressive for a player like Anthony Morrow, Ryan Anderson or any other shooting specialist whose main job is finish plays, not create them. While Thomas have a healthy chunk of his shots from behind the arc assisted -- over 60 percent, per Basketball Reference -- that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because of his creative responsibilities, his general role as Boston’s offensive hub and his diminutive size, this is the typical degree of difficulty shot Thomas faces most nights:
On top of that, that high number of assisted 3’s is a little misleading. Under Stevens, the Celtics offense (which we’ll get to in a bit) is filled with little dribble-flips or straight dribble-hand offs -- a lot of which involve Thomas. When he quickly stops and fires from deep from one of those situations, Thomas’ make gets credited as an assist to the ballhandler. But those types of shots aren’t the same as the classic spot up situations that so many catch-and-shoot players rely on for their gaudy percentages.
To confuse Thomas with a perimeter-bound player with this new spike in 3-point shooting would be a huge mistake. What has made Thomas so special is he’s combined with what he already does well: fearlessly attack the basket.
As anyone who has even casually played pickup hoops can attest to, it’s not fun to get your shot blocked. In fact, have it happen once or twice and it makes you think twice about putting up shots near the basket. One of the fun little secrets you find being around players at this level, is that some are just as susceptible to this fear as the average rec league player.
But as the above clip shows, Thomas will drive into crowds of defenders -- most somewhere around a foot taller than him -- without reservation time and time again. The fact that Thomas leads the league in having his shot blocked, per NBAMiner data, clearly doesn’t affect his approach. His ability to remain undeterred in his relentless assault on the rim despite frequent setbacks is as much as skill for Thomas as dribbling, shooting or passing is for the ordinary player.
Between his frequent forays to the basket and increased appetite for 3’s, Thomas’ shot dispersion is perfectly suited to the modern NBA. Over the course of the season, Thomas has attempted 1,163 field goals. Exactly 868 of those shots -- nearly 75 percent -- have either been from deep (494 attempts) or at the rim (374 attempts), per Basketball Reference. What’s even more impressive is that, despite the blocked shots, Thomas still manages to convert 59.4 percent of his shots at the basket.
The final piece of the Thomas' efficiency puzzle is, of course, free throws. At 5-foot-9, Thomas ranks 25th in free throw rate [min 1,000 minutes], per Basketball Reference. Limit that to players under 6-foot-5, and Thomas moves up to seventh. In terms of the raw, per game numbers, Thomas is currently setting a career high at 8.8 free throw attempts per game -- a career high. Even more impressively, he’s knocking down 90.9 percent of those charity shots, another career high mark.
So like Harden, Thomas has geared his approach to score in the most efficient ways on the basketball court. But knowing that he gets to those spots isn’t nearly as fun as seeing how it gets there.
Inside the Craft
The incredible part about the success Thomas is having is that he doesn’t have these immense physical gifts trapped inside that diminutive frame. Thomas isn’t blowing by defenders due to otherworldly speed, similar to other smaller guards like Ish Smith. And unlike a fellow Washington Husky alum, Nate Robinson, Thomas isn’t entering a dunk contest anytime soon. Instead, Thomas combines a sturdy frame with two less sexy, but equally effective attributes: shiftiness and a willingness to create contact.
While team offense can help carve open gaps to the rim for Thomas, there are plenty of situations where he needs to do the work himself. In order to get to the rim, Thomas relies quite a bit on changing speeds to keep defenders off balance. One of his go-to moves is this hesitation dribble that makes defenders think Thomas is going to pull the ball back out….right before he pushes off downhill toward the basket.
Getting to the rim, however, is only half the battle for Thomas. Once he’s there, Thomas needs to do everything he can to create space to get the ball to the rim. The way Thomas has found success is by using a variety of bumps, lean-backs and other contact-related moves to stand up taller defenders and give himself room to finish at the basket.
If you blinked during the above clip, you may have missed the subtle mastery of Thomas. Most players, especially at lower levels, would see a player like DeAndre Jordan lurking behind them en route to the rim and do everything they can to stretch as far away from him as possible. Ironically, that actually plays right into a shot-blockers hands as it allows him (or her!) to use their length and timing to block or alter the shot. Instead of reaching away -- letting Jordan come over the top of him and block the shot -- Thomas instead jumps back slightly, into the Clippers shot-swatting force. This little bit of contact not only screws up Jordan’s timing, but stands him up enough he can’t come over the top of Thomas to block the shot.
On nearly every foray to the rim, Thomas has to use some method of creating contact to get into a defender in order to release his shot. Sometimes, Thomas just flat out slingshots himself into the body of a jumping defender. This habit has not only allowed Thomas to thrive as a finisher, but leads to lends to his success in drawing fouls.
Because he creates so much contact (and is small), Thomas gets the benefit of the doubt on a lot of drives to the basket. But Thomas is crafty at creating contact and drawing fouls further out on the floor too. Thanks to the whirlwind nature of the Boston offense, Thomas sometimes comes flying off screens and handoffs while harried defenders do whatever they can to stay attached to him. Along with other smart players across the league, Thomas has become a master at sensing contact, stopping his momentum and baiting defenders into fouls.
The final key to Thomas’ scoring, is his passing. To be clear, Thomas hasn’t all of a sudden morphed into a passing wizard like Ricky Rubio. But because of the nature of his game, Thomas doesn’t have to. Instead, Thomas has to simply pick his spots just often enough it keeps a defense off balance.
After getting switched onto Jordan, Thomas -- a score-first guard -- starts to go into iso mode. Because the Clippers know that Thomas is geared to take on this mismatch and look to shoot, they load up with all help defenders locked onto Thomas. That’s when Avery Bradley sneaks along the baseline and receives a pass from Thomas for an easy bucket.
Thomas isn’t a great creator, but he makes just enough of these passes that defenses have to respect that, well, he will make them. That in turn means Thomas won’t have help defenders loading up on him the way notorious black holes like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have in the past. Thomas is something of an anomaly because of this approach. For a guy that basically is a volume scorer, he rarely seems to get his shots by hijacking the entire flow of the Celtic offense -- one of the major knocks against players like Bryant and Anthony. For Thomas, a little balance goes a long way.
As does having a creative head coach designing an offense around you.
The Stevens Touch
While still early in his NBA career, Stevens bears a lot of similarities to another head coach in this league known for turning mismatched parts into a cohesive machine, Rick Carlisle. One of the other Carlisle-like qualities Stevens shows off is his ability to develop a system that doesn’t just trot out his star player into the teeth of a defense and ask him to be great.
In both original play design and the counters within them, Thomas gets moved around like the pea in a shell game. Check out this play from last night’s game against the Warriors:
Thomas starts in the left corner on this play. Then, in the span of a few seconds, winds up on the right wing for an open 3. In between, he sets a cross screen for teammate Jae Crowder before coming a down screen from big man Amir Johnson. Suffice to say, Stevens isn’t exactly walking Thomas up into an isolation every possession. He’s been a master at these clever misdirection sets since his days at Butler.
Now the fun part about watching Thomas in Stevens’ offense is how well the Celtics move into free-flowing counters involving their star guard. You can see this in another play from their impressive win over Golden State last night. After some ball reversal and false action (stuff meant to just shift the defense but not actually create a shot), the main element for Thomas is to come off a high, wide screen from Al Horford. Watch what happens after that:
Right after Thomas catches off the screen and doesn’t have a shot, he and Horford just freelance. First Horford comes to follow with a pick-and-roll, but that gets snuffed out. Horford reads it, flashes high, Thomas passes it to him then uses his shiftiness to cut off for a hand off, split the defense and sink a pretty floater.
Both the original structure and following freelance action are a credit to Stevens -- who designs the template for the former and has, in practice and walkthroughs, likely covered the options for when these “unscripted” situations arise.
The best part about Stevens though is he doesn’t get bogged down in using complex, half-court sets all the time. There is plenty of times he unleashes Thomas is quick hitting things in transition. Whether it’s a simple drag screen (early pick-and-roll) or some type of off-ball screen for a quick shot like this:
Like Carlisle has done with Dirk Nowitzki, Stevens constantly shifts when and how his star gets the ball. Sometimes it’s quickly in transition with no passes. Other times it’s off fun misdirection plays. Then of course there’s the fun, freelance moments where Thomas and smart, unselfish teammates work their magic.
While Stevens has certainly created the framework in his system for Thomas to succeed, Thomas has a game -- an evolving one at that -- which is well suited for the ways teams attack in the modern NBA. Though there’s been some recent tension, Thomas and Stevens have combined to drive the Celtics up the Eastern Conference standings. And in the process, this basketball marriage has turned a twice-discarded, volume-scorer into a player deserving to be in the MVP discussion.