When Isaiah Thomas rose for his sixth and final 3-point attempt Sunday night, Marcin Gortat slapped both hands on his bald head. The Wizards‘ center was watching intently on the bench with a towel across his lap. Thomas had already made five 3-pointers in five attempts two nights after being held down in Game 3. Thomas had scored 53 points in Game 2. He dropped to 13 in Game 3. A barrage was expected and had arrived.
If there was still hair on Gortat’s head, he probably would have given it a tug when he saw Thomas free. The Wizards had predicated their entire defensive plan toward stopping the Celtics offensive dynamo, who, at just 5 foot 9, makes everything run for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
Thomas missed. He would not shoot another 3-pointer all night. After making his first five attempts less than 14 minutes into the game, he scored just four more points. During the two games in Washington, when the Wizards squared the Eastern Conference semifinals 2-2, Thomas scored 32 points total. In the opening two in Boston, he put in 86. The Wizards — for the time being — have constrained Thomas and delivered a message to the Celtics: Anyone other than Thomas, go ahead.
“If anybody watched Game 2, it’s a win any time he doesn’t shoot the ball,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s MVP-talk type of player. Give credit to him. He’s bounced around to a few teams, but he’s found a great spot and he’s thrived in his system. He’s fun to watch. Not as fun to coach against.”
There are three primary layers to why Thomas has been stifled.
First, Washington increased its desperation to keep the ball away from Thomas. It’s the most basic and common sense step of any quality defense. If Thomas gives the ball up, the Wizards have attempted with more vigor to shield him from receiving it back. Of the defenders on Thomas this series, Bradley Beal may be doing the best job. He knows what this strategy feels like against him, so he tried to deploy it against Thomas.
“Don’t want him touching the ball,” Beal said after Game 3. “Don’t want him to know what the ball feels like. That was our game plan. That’s how they play me, so we want to do the same thing to their best scorer and keep him out of the game as much as possible.”
Second, the Wizards‘ big men involved in pick-and-roll coverage have stayed up with Thomas. Instead of just tagging — coming to the ball-handler, then quickly dropping — they have lingered in front of the ball, turning the pressure into a half trap before descending back into the paint. Washington’s better weakside help has also allowed this tactic.
Last, they have kept Thomas off of the free throw line and caused more turnovers from him by playing big with hands up. They did it to almost unfathomable perfection in Game 4. Thomas shot zero free throws in the game and committed six turnovers. Thomas was seventh in the league in free throw attempts per game during the regular season. He also shot 90.9 percent, which was second-best. Keeping him off the free throw line is difficult and crucial.
“We just have to corral him,” Markieff Morris said. “Like he’s a small guy, so at the end of the day, if you got three players around you, how can you make a pass? How can you make a shot? It’s just basically what we’ve been doing and just trying, you know, to get the ball out of his hands. Hopefully, the other guys miss shots like they’ve been doing.”
The tactics and results frustrated Thomas. His arguing of a foul call midway through the fourth quarter Sunday resulted in a technical foul. Thomas waved his hand at official Danny Crawford, who then stuck his whistle in his mouth and made a “T” with his hands. Boston coach Brad Stevens sent Marcus Smart onto the floor to replace Thomas since the outcome of the game was clear.
Afterward, Thomas lamented his lack of free throws. He sounded very much like what was a frustrated Beal in Boston. Then, Beal and Brooks complained about how much the Celtics had their hands on Washington’s best scorer. They were grabbing, holding, bumping Beal said. Here’s Thomas on Sunday night:
“The refs were allowing them to hold and grab and do all of those things,” Thomas said. “I think, I mean, especially in that third quarter, I may have hit the ground five or six times. I’m not the one that likes hitting the ground, so like, I think it gotta be called differently.
“I’m not saying that’s the reason why they lost. They went on a 26-0 run. We can’t have that on the road, but I cannot allow to be held and grabbed every pin down, every screen and I don’t even shoot one free-throw. I play the same way each and every night, that has to change. They also paid a lot more attention to me. They didn’t allow me to get any open looks after the first, I guess, little bit of the second quarter. As a team, we have to do a better job of figuring that stuff out and take advantage of what they are doing to us.”
Thomas was matter of fact when explaining his stance, being careful to point out multiple times that the 26-0 run doomed Boston. He also included a subtle dig at Wall in his comments when referencing the person who falls often, then looks for a call from the referee.
The Celtics needs to find a solution. The switch from the first two games to the last two has been staggering. Thomas scored 54 fewer points in the two losses in Washington. His free throw attempts were almost cut in half — 20 to 11 — and his turnovers doubled from four to eight.
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