– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
WASHINGTON — Isaiah Thomas stands out on the basketball court, and does so for many reasons. Most of all, it’s because he’s one of the league’s most dynamic scorers, especially saving his best for last as he’s the NBA’s leading fourth-quarter scorer. Over the past three weeks, his personal tragedy has played out for the world to see, and his excellence while playing with a heavy heart has left many in awe.
What stands out the most about Isaiah is also part of what might be causing the Celtics to start to lose a grip in this best-of-seven series with the Washington Wizards: he’s 5-foot-9, and the Wizards are trying to remind him of that every chance they get.
Early in the Wizards’ 121-102 win tonight over the Celtics to tie their series at two wins apiece, Washington made it a point to find Bradley Beal, the 6-foot-7 guard who Thomas had the unenviable task of having to guard on the perimeter. Beal backed down Thomas on a few possessions. He shot over him time and again when he had the look, which was often. Some of the shots went in, others did not.
While Thomas has the basketball, the Wizards, for a second game running, made sure to double-team him off the pick-and-roll action, and also did a much better job contesting his shots at the rim – unlike the first two games, when Thomas had a combined 86 points, both Boston wins.
Washington has made the adjustment on one of the league’s most explosive players, and the momentum of the series has turned because of it.
“We made quite a few mistakes early on things that we have talked about after Game 2,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks after the contest. “We can’t have that. If you do, this is what you see: a three, a three, a drive, a three, a three, a drive. You have to be able to execute our game plan. With that even being said, it’s not a guarantee that he is going to miss shots. He had wide-open looks. They made an adjustment and I thought we did a good job of figuring that out.”
Thomas showed flashes that tonight was going to be more like Games 1 and 2, scoring 17 first-half points and hitting five of his six three-point attempts in the first 24 minutes. As the third quarter unfolded, and the Wizards stifled Boston’s offense to the tune of nine third-quarter turnovers (leading to 21 points off those turnovers) and engineering a 26-0 run to effectively end the game, Washington’s adjustments on guarding Thomas were taking its toll on the Celtics’ flow on offense. Thomas alone committed five third-quarter turnovers.
“We have to continue to make him see a crowd,” Brooks said.
The continued attention on Thomas clearly was frustrating him, as he only scored two points after halftime. His frustration carried over into the postgame press conference.
“They were very physical,” Thomas said. “The refs were allowing them to hold and grab and do all of those things. 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’s gotta be called differently.”
Trying to plant a seed in the officials’ minds for Game 5? Probably.
A sign of desperation? Possibly.
The last two games for the Celtics, albeit road tilts against the team tied with Boston for the second-best home record in the Eastern Conference, resembled more like the first two playoff games this season – non-competitive losses against the Chicago Bulls – than the next six, which Boston won consecutively before Game 3 against the Wizards last Thursday. Not only did the third quarter see the Celtics commit almost half of their 20 turnovers in it, they only made five of their 16 shots in the quarter. Thomas believes there was more to the team’s wayward shooting than just having an off night.
“We got to be confident, said Thomas. “For whatever reason, today, guys had their heads down after missing a few shots. If we are getting the right shots and are missing, just continue to shoot. We have to remain confident.”
Thomas continued: “We just got remain confident, keep shooting with confidence and don’t allow them to go on 22-0 runs, 26-0 runs. If any team gets hit with that, you are most likely going to lose.”.
Therein lies another problem for the Celtics as, for the fourth game running, Boston has indeed let the explosive Wizards hit them with a game-altering run. The 16-0 run to start Game 1 and the 42-point quarter the Wizards had in Game 2 were overcome by the Celtics at TD Garden, but it must be alarming that, no matter the venue, Boston, sooner or later, gets flattened by an avalanche of a run by Washington.
“One of the things [is] if you turn the ball over against these guys, you prefer to drop-kick it into the stands so that at least you can set your defense,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Their attack in transition killed us. In each of these two games, I think that our offense and our turnovers in that run separated the game — last game it was in the first quarter, today it was the third quarter. They made us pay for it.”
If Washington didn’t make the Celtics pay with all of the turnovers, they sure did in the paint, as Washington once again took advantage of the small-ball lineup the Celtics went with for the majority of the game. The Wizards scored 56 points in the paint for the second consecutive game, outscoring Boston by 18 in that category. (The Wizards outscored the Celtics 56-28 in the paint in Game 3.) Washington also owned a 45-31 edge on the glass tonight.
“When [Boston] is small, we have to dominate them on the boards,” said Wizards power forward Markieff Morris, who recorded 16 points and 10 rebounds tonight. “There’s no way those little guys should be rebounding over us. We had that problem in the second game and that’s how they basically came back in the last two minutes, with offensive rebounding. We just had to clean that up. We’re the bigger guys, so we have to control the paint.”
The domination over the past few days in DC, as thorough as it has been, only has drawn the Wizards level in this series, even if the momentum feels as if it might count for more. As Thomas explained, “I mean, the only thing that they did was take care of business at home like we did. It’s a series now. It’s back to 0-0.”
But it’s the Celtics that are back at square one, with a list of concerns that need addressing in hopes of not letting the Wizards compound those issues on Wednesday night.
Big and small.