Isaiah Thomas, the reigning Eastern conference player of the week and soon-to-be first-time all-star, has the Boston Celtics flying past the midway point of the season. Brad Stevens’s outfit is 31-23, third in the Eastern Conference standings, with a point differential (plus-4.2) that ranks sixth in the league.
For a team that was purported to be one year removed from true contender status, Boston’s wins over seven of the eight would-be playoff teams in the Eastern Conference seems pretty telling—Stevens and Co. don’t feel like waiting another year to challenge the throne.
As has been the case since he was traded by Phoenix last February, Boston has looked to Thomas, its 5-foot-9 point guard, to score in volume. This season, though, as a consistent starter for the first time in his career, Thomas is doing much more; averaging career highs in points (19.3 per game), assists (6.6), rebounds (3.0) and usage rate (28.8 percent of possessions).
With him on the court, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions and connecting on a higher true shooting percentage (54.1 compared to 50.8), while averaging a lower turnover ratio.
“Our team is different when Isaiah’s got the ball,” Stevens told ESPN.com last month.
Actively running him around screen-setters, Thomas is one of the most dynamic and mobile offensive players in the league, having scored the fifth most points this season (103) off handoffs.
Last week, Thomas led the Celtics into Quicken Loans Arena and took down the conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. Two nights later, he dropped 22 points in the team’s win over Sacramento, capping a 4-0 week. The carryover from last month’s production hasn’t tapered off; in January, he poured in 33.5 points per 100 possessions while helping the Celtics to the seventh-highest net rating in the league.
What makes this iteration of the Celtics different from the past two seasons—Stevens’ first two with the franchise—is its proficiency on both sides of the ball. Boston ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in offensive rating and no higher than 13th in defensive rating each of the last two seasons. After acquiring Thomas last year, the Celtics went 17-9 over the last two months of the regular season, but were promptly swept in the first round by the Cavaliers. The team failed to reach triple digits in scoring in all but one game, while allowing Cleveland to average more than 100 points per contest.
This season, however, only seven franchises—Golden State, San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and Boston—rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive rating. Thomas is the offensive linchpin, helping the Celtics score 103.1 points per 100 possessions this season after the team averaged 100.7 the past two seasons. And while Thomas will be a minus defender for the foreseeable future, he contributes 1.2 steals per contest to a team that generates the second most in the league (9.6).
Boston isn’t favored to win an NBA championship this season, and for good reason: there are two historically great teams dotting the current landscape. But the Celtics are looking increasingly like a team that has thrown the training wheels to the side of the road. Boston is consistently capable of scoring in volume and holding opponents in check for the first time since Doc Rivers was at the helm, and Thomas has played a pivotal role in the progression on both ends of the court.