The Celtics have been blessed with the opportunity to take on a Cavaliers team that has played only eight games over the course of the past month. And Boston has had anything but rest ever since their playoff run began. They can’t miss a beat as they’ll jump right into their toughest matchup of the season against arguably the hottest team in the NBA.
What’s the secret recipe for taking down a Cavaliers team that’s playing their most consistent basketball in months? It’s starts — and ends — with Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas is one of those players who can explode for 40 points in the most frustrating fashion. He’s small, crafty, quick as hell, and knows how to use his height disadvantage as an advantage against bigger opponents.
If the Celtics want any shot of making this a formidable series, Thomas has to play even better than he already has in these playoffs. On the other side of that spectrum, how do the Cavs ensure that Thomas is kept at bay?
Thomas is the Celtics number one option when it comes to taking over games, in fact, he may be their only option in that regard.
The gap in talent is too sizable for someone such as Al Horford or Avery Bradley (or even Kelly Olynyk, apparently) to be the ultimate factor in the Celtics not getting swept.
The Celtics will have to rely on Thomas to make MVP-caliber plays consistently and he’ll have to do so against a pair of the Cavaliers best on-ball defenders, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
But Thomas is a different beast than what the Cavaliers have seen thus far in the playoffs. This isn’t Jeff Teague or playoff Kyle Lowry, this is a pure scorer in every sense of the word.
Despite his size, Thomas doesn’t need even an inch of space to get a good shot off. He’s excellent at using his body to shield himself from defenders and his stop-and-go motor is impossible to stop at times. Throw in his infamous “tightly curling around the pick-and-roll and then getting fouled on jump shots when no one even touched him” move and he becomes a different type of offensive flamethrower.
The Cavaliers defensive gameplan to start the Boston series might look similar to how they guarded DeMar DeRozan in the previous round. Sending constant double-teams that forced DeRozan to either give the ball up or take the two-on-one with a full-head of steam is ultimately what led to their demise. Well, that and LeBron James.
A large reason for the success of the double-team was the fact that the Raptors were extremely limited when it came to shooters.
If DeRozan was surrounded with actual perimeter shooters instead of big men who hover the arc and refuse to pound the ball inside (i.e. Ibaka and Patterson), he may have been more reluctant to pass the ball to someone who he knew could create his own offense.
While Thomas does have more reliable shooters that surround him with players such as Bradley and Jae Crowder, they are not even remotely considered as elite shot makers.
The Cavaliers will gladly welcome someone other than Thomas initiating the offense, and that means keeping the ball out of his hands at all costs.
The double-team on Thomas should be expected as the first couple quarters go by. But if his elite quickness aids in him eluding the trap, the Cavaliers could find themselves in some less-than ideal situations.
Smith was tasked with guarding Paul George in round one and DeRozan in round two in which he did a stellar job, but Thomas is different, and everybody, including Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, knows it.
He won’t be on Isaiah (Thomas) to start.,” Lue told Cleveland.com. “He’ll get a chance, maybe, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Lue then went on to say that Thomas “is a different guard” for someone such as Smith to cover. Smith has been used to guarding much larger and more physical opponents. Thomas would be different kind of beast.
Kyrie Irving’s questionable-at-times defense and necessary value on the offensive end will deter Lue from assigning him to Thomas so the last remaining option looks to be Shumpert, who has had an up-and-down regular season but much like last season, he has turned it up during the playoffs.
His defense on George in round one was important and earned a spot in Lue’s rotation. Shumpert has some of the quickest hands in the NBA as is great at smacking the ball loose without fouling. He’s quick on his feet and low enough to the ground where he has the best chance at staying in front of Thomas, which is the hardest part of the battle.
While I do expect Smith to cover Thomas throughout large chunks of the series, Shumpert should be the Cavs’ preference as to who guards the shifty sniper, with help constantly being brought from whoever is guarding the worst shooter on the floor for Boston.
The Cavaliers aren’t going to be nearly as concerned about an open Olynyk or Marcus Smart as they will be for Thomas in isolation situations.
However, if Thomas does expose the double-teams, then there will definitely be some chatter about maybe putting LeBron on him.
Thomas is a much larger threat than anyone LeBron would be guarding, but LeBron shouldn’t be necessary when it comes to guarding Thomas, except for bringing the double. So don’t get too excited about how hilarious it would be to watch LeBron chase Thomas around the floor in crunch time.
Another factor in relation to how the Cavs will guard Thomas is actually linked to their biggest weakness, the lack of a premier interior presence.
While Horford is an All-Star type talent, he has a track record of struggling against Tristan Thompson and there isn’t another Celtic that is a legitimate threat in the low post, which will force Thomas to do even more with the ball.
The Cavaliers lack the Andrew Bogut or Larry Sanders or even a healthy Edy Tavares they were hoping for, but the Celtics don’t have the tools to exploit it anyways.
The Cavaliers will do everything they can to force the issue and make someone other than Isaiah Thomas beat them. If Thomas can be contained, don’t expect the Cavaliers to be making too many visits to Boston.