Despite having played less than two full seasons in a Boston Celtics uniform, Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into the de facto leader of Brad Stevens’s offense. This was made abundantly clear in the team’s 109-106 win over the Golden State Warriors, when Thomas, who was held scoreless in the first half, exploded in the third quarter to score 18 points, essentially playing reigning MVP Stephen Curry’s 21-point frame to a stalemate.
He didn’t play particularly well in the fourth quarter, but it was Thomas for whom Stevens called a play out of a timeout with 10.2 seconds remaining. Thomas acrobatically contorted his torso to evade the outstretched arms of defensive savant Draymond Green and dropped in a key basket in the waning moments.
There are obvious reasons why players like LeBron James and Damian Lillard take make-or-break shots in crunch time. Both lead their teams in scoring, sure, but each is often willing and eager to rise to the occasion when the game hangs in the balance. The benefit of having a go-to scorer and alpha creator increases exponentially in the playoffs, where the late-game pace is often slowed and the scores often tighten. Boston has won two playoff games in four years, and has been yearning for a crunch-time scorer ever since Paul Pierce — and to a lesser degree, Kevin Garnett — left town. As far as hard-fought postseason contests are concerned, the Celtics have played 39 playoff games since the turn of the century that were decided by five points or less, more than 25 percent of the team’s total playoff games over that stretch.
Should the Celtics hope to make a playoff run later this month, Stevens will need to look to Thomas for end-of-game offensive production.
A spread pick-and-roll mercenary, Thomas can punish a team off hand-offs, as the primary ball handler or with range from beyond the arc. He’s attacking the paint with reckless abandon this season, leading the league with 11.7 drives per contest — plays in which he accounts for more than 64 percent of his nightly scoring. Thomas has also covered more ground on court this season than any other Celtics: 172.2 miles.
Thomas scores .322 points per possession, tied for the 10th best mark among players who have played in at least 60 games. Worth noting, then, is that he has led the Celtics in scoring in 16 consecutive games, which, according to Elias, is a franchise record. The point guard is certainly peaking at the right time, too: Thomas has had at least 20 points in every game since the start of March.
“He has little man syndrome,” Jae Crowder playfully told Sports Illustrated. “But I love it.”
In clutch situations, defined as being the final five minutes of games decided by five points or less, that average rises to .417, the 10th best mark among players who have played in at least 15 games with those parameters; Thomas has been in 43, more than each of the nine players ranked ahead of him.
With five games remaining, Boston occupies the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and trails the Atlanta Hawks by a half-game for the third seed. Stevens needs Thomas, who went toe-to-toe with Curry and lived to tell the tale, to continue his success in the fourth quarter the rest of the season. He’ll need to keep throwing haymakers when the team needs them most.