NBA Playoffs: Improved Cavs defense posing problems for Celtics' Isaiah Thomas
Boston's star guard was not himself in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals
BOSTON -- It was a bad sign when Isaiah Thomas turned the ball over on the first possession of the Eastern Conference finals. On Wednesday, Thomas' series started with the Boston Celtics star getting trapped in the corner by the Cleveland Cavaliers' supposed defensive weak links, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Unable to find a passing angle, Love wound up with a steal.
It is no surprise that Cleveland was active and aggressive against Thomas. Coach Tyronn Lue did not want him to get going and give energy to his teammates and the crowd. After the Cavs' 117-104 victory, Lue revealed that their "main objective was to make it physical on Isaiah, try to take him out." They did not want him to get comfortable, and they definitely did not want him to get easy points at the free throw line or clean looks from behind the 3-point line.
A few minutes after that trap, Thomas ran a high pick-and-roll with Al Horford, but then he forced a pass to the big man with Irving in a position to help. Irving, who tends to be much more aware on defense in the playoffs, picked it off easily.
Thomas is one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league, but because of the way Cleveland rotated, he never really gained an advantage on that play. The Cavs didn't play every possession this perfectly, but, just like in earlier rounds, they generally adhered to the game plan and it paid off. That focus has been why they have appeared to flip the proverbial switch in the playoffs.
"The one thing that you understand is you've got a lot more time to kind of game plan, and game plan for your opponent," Cleveland star LeBron James said at practice on Thursday. "In this particular instance we didn't have much time because [Celtics-Wizards] went seven [games] and we had to play in 48 hours, but in the postseason you get an opportunity to game plan and know exactly what you want to do, how you want to execute it, and our coaching staff gave us a great game plan to go out there and do it. And you also know that every possession matters."
Thomas can put an immense amount of pressure on his opponents. He generates much of Boston's offense by getting into the paint and making the defense collapse. He never had much of a rhythm in Game 1, though, and at times seemed frustrated. Late in the second quarter, he pushed the ball after a made free throw, looking for a 2-for-1 opportunity. Celtics forward Jae Crowder set a screen, Thomas sliced into the lane and then missed in a crowd, with the Cavs' big men clearly avoiding making contact.
In the third quarter, Thomas appeared to make a careless error, throwing an ill-advised jump pass that went straight to Cleveland guard J.R. Smith. This happened, though, because Cleveland was in sync. You can see Smith tracking Thomas while defending Crowder, then causing him to hesitate by stunting toward him. This gave Tristan Thompson time to switch onto Thomas and force the turnover.
"You gotta talk," James said. "It's a beautiful thing when you're communicating and everybody knows where they're supposed to be defensively. Because when you get stops, then you can have fun. You can go out and run around and throw the ball and shoot 3s and things of that nature."
Thomas finished with 17 points and 10 assists, but he shot 7-for-19 and turned the ball over four times. Afterward, though, he maintained that his subpar performance wasn't a result of the Cavs' defense.
"They play their traditional way," Thomas said at Thursday's practice. "I mean, they definitely showed a few bodies that was aggressive on me, but that's nothing I haven't seen this whole year. I mean, I've seen it all. Like I said, it's nothing like the Wizards were doing where they showed and had three guys on me, or like the Bulls were playing on top of me and trying to be very physical. They're playing their traditional ways, but sometimes they do trap me a little bit, but there's nothing that I needed to figure out. I've just got to be more aggressive, make plays, make shots, and go from there."
In a way, Thomas is right. The great ones can render even the best game plans irrelevant. They make defenses scramble, they anticipate help and they engineer scoring opportunities out of thin air. As much as Boston relies on Thomas, though, it does not want to put everything on his shoulders. If it wasn't obvious heading into the series, the Celtics know now that Cleveland is willing to live with other players getting open shots in order to keep Thomas quiet. The way to beat that strategy is simple: ball movement.
"I think it's a collaboration," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "Isaiah has to be able to make the quick, right read. The coaching staff has to make sure people are in the right positions so we can take advantage of that. The players on the floor need to be able to read that blitz. They need to be able to put themselves in position to be the next catcher and then attack out of it. So it's everybody working together."
That doesn't always mean Thomas has to get rid of the ball. Here he is quickly stepping into a jumper before James has a chance to challenge it:
And here he is pulling up from midrange with ease over Love:
The key on both of those plays is that Thomas was decisive. The Cavs might not be sending three defenders at him like Washington did after his 53-point game, but everyone on the floor is mindful of where he is. If Thomas is going to turn things around, he has to be even more locked in than they are.
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