The third best team in the Eastern Conference right now is the Boston Celtics (20-14). They are behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, like most teams in the entire league. But Boston is putting some distance between them and that next tier: the Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, and the Milwaukee Bucks. And a huge reason for this has been the play of their star player Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas isn’t doing it alone, he’s on a well built Danny Ainge team that’s well coached by Brad Stevens — and running with Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and others. But Thomas is the engine that runs the show. The 2016 All-Star is likely heading to the 2017 game down in New Orleans. This season he’s averaging 27.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 6.1 apg, 0.9 spg, and dropping 2.6 threes a game.
The under the rim player is a blur with the ball and he’s getting the screens he needs to get into the paint at will. The fact that he shares the ball on offense with other ball handlers also gives him the freedom to get into scoring position outside of the three point line. But the coup de grace for him this year has been his ability to get to the line. On average, this season is gets 9.0 FTA per game and is knocking down 90.4 % of them. Thomas will make you pay for not being as fast as him.
And really, this little guy has just taken over as a scorer this year, hitting 20-29 points twenty times, 30-39 points seven times, 40-49 points once, and 50+ points once as well — only a few nights ago.
Woo! 52 points! That’s how much Mo Williams scored in a game two years ago.
All that said, the Utah Jazz (22-13), the fourth best team in the Western Conference, know a little something about Isaiah Thomas. After all, before his recent evolution as a long-distance bombing leprechaun, he was a long-time member of the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. Those teams play the Jazz a lot. And the Jazz have seen a lot of Thomas as a result.
Over his career he has suited up and played in 15 games against the Utah. And here are his basic stats from those games:
So his average against Utah is 16.1 ppg / 5.1 apg, and that’s not devastatingly problematic. He has gone off, going for 20+ points in three of those games, and being generally effective as a scorer in all but a handful of matches. As a distributor he can get it done, but 9 assists are his high — it’s not like the olden days were a notable night for a point guard would be something like 16 assists. Heck, one season back in the 80s the guy he was named after, Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas, averaged 13.9 apg. But I guess point guards were the QB of their teams, where as now they are the RB trying to drive and score with the ball and not pass it off to anyone.
Has Thomas? Utah knows him as a speedy scorer. I don’t think he has gotten faster. But his scoring has improved: 11.5 ppg as a rookie to 27.7 ppg in his 6th season. A huge part of that is taking more threes (but not necessarily shooting BETTER from three than any other point in his career), and getting to the line more (and he was already a very reliable free throw maker as well). He’s doing this with only a marginal increase in playing time. (His USG% has gone up quite a bit, though.)
So a more active and attacking Thomas is the player Utah will face tonight. He has been very hot of late, his last 10 games resulted in scoring nights of: 20, 26, 23, 44, 28, 34, 27, 21, 31, and 52 points. I have no doubt he’s going to embarrass the Utah Jazz defenders elected to try to stop him tonight (sorry Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto, and any others if health allows them to like George Hill and Alec Burks).
But the Jazz can win a game when Thomas goes off. For example, they did it last February against the Boston Celtics when Thomas went off for 25 and 6, with 10 FTA. They did it by controlling the pace of play, the boards, and by playing their game. Which is defense. Thomas scored that night, but Utah held Boston to .370 .280 .722 shooting that game overall.
Over the last 10 games Thomas is averaging 30.6 ppg. And the teams he has played have been the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies x2, Charlotte Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat x2, and the New York Knicks. Only three of those squads are what you would call Top 10 defenses by NBA Rank right now (MEM, CHA, OKC). Unfortunately for the Jazz, against those squads he put up 44, 34, 26, and 21 points. That’s still a lot.
What will Utah’s heralded defense be able to do tonight? Hopefully for us Jazz fans, they’ll be able to do just enough to get that win in Boston. The New Orleans / Utah Jazz franchise is only 11-35 in Boston. So even if the Jazz are good enough to bottle up Thomas, or the Celtics, it’s still not likely that they’ll get that win.
Stranger things have happened though, like the a 5’9 player selected 60th in the NBA draft becoming a legit All-Star and scoring option. Thomas beat the odds, and I have a lot of love for him. But please miss a lot of shots tonight.