Celtics star Isaiah Thomas was an absolute force in the final quarter and overtime of Game 2 against the Wizards Tuesday night. The diminutive point guard scored 29 of his 53 points in the fourth and OT and outscored the Wizards 9-5 by himself in the bonus period, leading Boston to a 129-119 win at TD Garden.
Thomas did it all offensively — drives to the basket, midrange jumpers, 3-pointers. Everything was working. It was an unstoppable tour de force that was met with whatever is the opposite of an immovable object. As good (exceptionally good) as Thomas was, he climbed over the 50-point plateau in part because the Wizards offered no solutions in guarding him.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has done a tremendous job throughout the season of configuring his lineups and designing sets that create scoring opportunities for Thomas, even with opposing teams knowing he is the No. 1 option. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Stevens used Al Horford as a screener to give Thomas a couple open off-the-catch looks. One benefit of using a small-ball lineup (aside from the spacing provided by multiple shooters) is having ball handlers like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier on the floor. In the following play, Rozier played point, allowing Thomas to flare off the Horford screen for a wide open 3-pointer.
Rozier also handled point responsibilities on a key Thomas 3 with 2:30 left in regulation. Horford faked a ball screen for Rozier before leaking out to hit Thomas' defender, John Wall. Marcin Gortat, who was guarding Horford, is so far out helping on a ball screen that doesn't exist he has no time to recover back to Thomas. Shot up, too late.
And when Thomas did have the ball in his hands? Yikes. He attacked on straight-line drives and was met with little resistance on his way to the basket. Thomas benefited from the spacing once again with Avery Bradley, Smart, Rozier and Horford providing enough of a perimeter threat to keep the defense honest.
However, the pick-and-roll coverage by Markieff Morris in the first play below as well as the lack of any help defenders stepping into the lane made these buckets way too easy.
Maybe the most confusing non-adjustment for Scott Brooks' team was leaving big men like Gortat and Morris on an island with Thomas. There was no way these possessions could possibly end well. Thomas, who scored in the 95.3 percentile at 1.12 points per possession on isolation plays during the regular season (via NBA.com stats), poured gasoline on these mismatches and sparked his lighter.
So, what should Brooks do? Blitzing Thomas on pick-and-rolls and throwing more double-teams in his direction would be a start. The Wizards also must push Thomas out toward the sideline and avoid straight-line drives at all costs. One such play occurred late in the fourth quarter when Gortat and Otto Porter Jr. forced Thomas toward the corner and made him pick up his dribble. It wasn't a very organized or well-communicated double-team, but it took the ball out of Thomas' hands.
While Thomas did find a cutting Jae Crowder, Morris rotated over in enough time to block the layup attempt. Wall found Morris for an open jumper as part of a broken play in transition. Pretty? No. But it's the playoffs. You just have to get the job done.
Give Thomas all the credit in the world for his playoff performance so far. He's playing inspired basketball following the tragic death of his sister, not to mention two days of dental surgery. But the Wizards also didn't do much to stop him, particularly in clutch time. If Washington wants to extend this series, Brooks has to go back to the defensive drawing board.