On December 16th, Isaiah Thomas returned from a four-game absence. He sat out with a groin injury. When he returned, the diminutive magician exploded, going on a scoring rampage Celtics fans haven’t witnessed since a certain blonde-haired legend from small-town Indiana retired.
Over those twelve games, the Boston is 10–2 (including four straight wins on the road). The two losses: @ Cleveland, who had two days off before the game; OKC (second night of back-to-back for Celtics). Of those 12 games, the best wins: two over Memphis, including OT win @ Memphis; win over Charlotte (no Kemba Walker); win over Utah, who was playing their third in four nights.
For perspective, Boston’s opponent winning percentage over those 12 games: .491. Their opponent winning percentage in 11 games (not Cleveland): .466
*start of promotion*
If you like podcasts, here’s the one he does with his old friend Michael.It has nothing to do with basketball, but has to do with everything else about life. https://soundcloud.com/jonah-hall-3/sets/maine-to-california-pod
Jonah’s new hoops memoir, The Dusty Jumper: An Elaborate Account of a Misfit YMCA Men’s Basketball Team, will be available in February.
*end of promotion*
Isaiah Thomas has been truly spectacular over this stretch of 12. The team is now completely healthy (except for Avery Bradley’s recent Achilles issue).
- 44 points on 16 shots @ Memphis, including 7 threes and 17 of 17 at line.
- 31 points, 9 assists on only 13 shots @ Cleveland, including 13 of 13 at line.
- 52 points on 26 shots, 9 of 13 from deep against Miami.
Ball Movement, Health, and Spacing: Threes Galore
Since December 16th, Celtics numbers:
- 13.2 three-pointers made (2nd in NBA)
- while shooting 39.2% from deep (5th)
- 25.9 assists per game (5th)
- 8.3 steals (6th-tied)
- 24.2 free-throw attempts (24.2) while shooting 84.5% (3rd)
- 2.02 Assist-to-turnover ratio (2nd-tied)
- 66.2 assist percentage (percentage of field-goals assisted) (2nd to GSW)
- 73.6 defensive rebound percentage (28th)
- 112.3 offensive rating (4th)
- 107.4 defensive rating (18th)
2nd Half Dominance (since 12/16):
- 120.0 offensive rating (1st)
- 1.99 assist-to-turnover (3rd)
- 62.5 true-shooting % (1st)
Q&A: Jonah Hall and Jared Schaeffer, on the Celtics streak, Isaiah, Trade rumors, and three-pointers.
JH: Are the last 12 games sustainable? Can we play that well for the rest of the season? Can Isaiah be anywhere close to that good for the rest of the year and playoffs?
JS: I don’t think the offense can continue to be this good, nor can Isaiah be this ridiculously effective. Hopefully I’m wrong though! I think the defense can be better, they still have some stretches where they don’t seem focused. If they stay healthy I think they’ll be right there with Toronto for the 2nd seed.
JH: Yep, it feels like a wildly explosive offense, based on the barrage of threes, and the fact that 39% are going in lately. Isaiah has hit a ton of them. Avery has hit a bunch. Even Horford is hitting decently. They are finally healthy, which makes me think some of it is just the 5-man lineups they’ve been hoping for. Kelly has been a great conduit, passing from the top, with the second unit. Amir has been hitting some threes. They’re basically playing four-out with nobody under the hoop, but they’ve been lucky with the schedule, getting Utah in the 3rd game in 4 nights. I want to see them beat Toronto on Tuesday, in order to feel like they’ve officially moved up into that second tier in the East.
JS: That would certainly help. As you noted, they don’t have a ton of quality wins, especially when the schedule is taken into consideration. Marcus was even hitting threes the last game. I love that after Houston started fouling him on purpose he decided to shoot 90% from the line somehow.
JH: That was an interesting tidbit to read about. Smart took it personally, I guess, which seems like the way for a player to take getting deliberately fouled. Way to go, D’Antoni!
JS: His playmaking has been pretty good all year.. And his defense is insane. I mean, Bradley is great but to me Smart seems like he’s on another level (though maybe he is just better at making spectacular defensive plays and the subtle positioning is lost on me).
JH: I’ve been impressed with Smart in the pick-and-roll. Making reads around the elbows. Bounce passes that aren’t especially highlight-worthy, but are exactly what is needed based on the defense. Defensively, I agree. Bradley has a kind of swarming, long-armed approach where he can close out on shooters better and he has great footwork. Smart seems to know where to be before anyone else. His hands are so strong, he just rips the ball out of opposing hands. His one-on-one defense (a couple plays) against Anthony Davis in the fourth quarter was impressive.
JS: Yeah, they’ve also started posting him up on point guards with the second unit which seems like a nice wrinkle given he weighs 50 pounds more than those guys. Hopefully they don’t trade him! Seems like they value him more than most teams at this point anyhow.
JH: Junk in the trunk! He’s strong, wide, and fiercely determined. I think Smart stays, and I’m glad. I’m worried that Crowder, Rozier and this year’s Brooklyn pick are on the table if we can get Butler. It’d be awesome to have Butler, but I think we need a rebounder, Reggie Evans-type and see what happens. Bogut would be fun to see against Toronto — to counter Valanciunas — though Patrick Patterson is the one who gets the 4th quarter minutes lately, and Toronto’s offense has been historic.
JS: Yeah, Stevens clearly loves him (constantly talks about all of the things he does that don’t show up in the stats).
What’s Butler’s contract like? Did he sign a max this past summer? I hope Jae stays, I know Butler is a big upgrade but that pick is pretty nice and Jae’s contract is ridiculous. Butler doesn’t shoot it as well, though 9 FTA/game is pretty nice.
JH: Butler has been awesome this year, and he’s a great two-way player. I don’t know that he’d rather be in Boston as a sidekick to Isaiah, and I doubt we’d be able to afford Isaiah when he becomes a FA in July, 2018. It’s tough, because we don’t have a playoff-style offense. Right now, we feel like Atlanta in 2013–14, when they won 60 games. I don’t know if we defend or rebound well enough against the Tristan Thompson types. Then again, Cleveland may be playing Love-LeBron-Korver-Kyrie-Frye and forget about offensive rebounding.
JS: I think Atlanta that season is probably the peak of what we can do. I don’t think Butler changes that though (part of why I’m inclined to keep the pick). I don’t think they’ve got much of a chance against Cleveland in a 7 game series (barring injury).
JH: Speaking of Atlanta, do they trade Millsap? If so, does he go to Toronto? If so, are we fucked?
JS: Zach Lowe had an all Toronto podcast which was pretty interesting. They were arguing that Patterson was the second or third most important player on the team.
JH: I heard that, too. Yeah, the way that Lowry and DeRozan have been driving past everyone, if you have two good-shooting bigs in the corners, and Ross on the wing, I don’t know how you guard them.
JS: I think they will trade him, though who knows? They’ve won a bunch of games in a row now. Toronto seems like a logical destination; Lowe didn’t think they would make the trade (though it seemed like he thought they should). Lowry, DeRozan, Millsap would not be great for the playoffs. Maybe Smart and Bradley could do something to slow them down (though it seems like Lowry and DeRozan kill the Celtics pretty consistently).
JH: It’s an interesting point about the Raptors. Thinking more about them, and how easily they might have lost to Indiana in last year’s playoffs…there is such a fine line between good and very good teams. A few bounces sometimes. I’ve always been a huge Millsap fan, but I wonder how effective he will be in a new situation he has to learn in a few months before a playoff run. Atlanta has such a cohesive system and he’s perfect for it.
JS: Lowry and DeRozan also dominate the ball so it might be tough to integrate more touches for Millsap (though he may not need the ball to be effective). Millsap is still somehow underrated. I keep expecting it to finally swing to the point where everyone dumps so much praise on him he becomes overrated. Maybe that’s not happening because he’s playing in Atlanta.
JH: Exactly what I was thinking. For such a big city, Atlanta gets overlooked in NBA media circles. I also think he doesn’t fit any mold (which adds to his impact). Like a Moneyball baseball player. He came in as a tweener, before it was popular. He’s not a banger on the post. He’s not a great-looking shooter (but he is effective). He plays incredible defense. He fights. He doesn’t have the outward swagger of Draymond, or somebody, but he plays with a sharp, undeniable toughness.
Back to the Celtics — what is it that keeps a portion of the fans from appreciating what we have? I feel like I’m hearing about DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler too much. There was some article questioning Isaiah’s value as a Celtic, compared with his value as trade-bait. How the hell are we going to score in the playoffs without Isaiah?
JS: I think there’s a big championship or bust attitude around here which probably leads to a focus on improving the team rather than appreciating what we have. As constructed, there isn’t much chance they’ll win the title. They are incredibly fun to watch most nights though. The Boston media is pretty good at inventing stories since there’s such a rabid fan base to devour them. I think that’s where debating Isaiah’s value comes in. Without him they can’t score at all.
JH: I read something the boiled it down perfectly the other day. There are two types of Boston sports fans: those we read and those we listen to sports radio.
I also think it’s the fans that aren’t invested in the day-to-day goings on of the team, but want to see the big games that bring up this kind of talk. There’s too much money to be gained by endlessly worshiping the GM moves and possible mythological trade winds.
JS: I certainly agree with that. There’s a lot to love about the players on the team as constructed, and watching them every night makes it much harder to dream of dumping everyone for Butler or Cousins.. Though I think Cousins has so much talent I would probably go for it even though he is currently punching a chair.
JH: It’s a great debate, and one that will go on until Cousins retires. I wrote about Cousins a while ago, and I remember watching a New Year’s Eve matinee game where the Garden was silent and there were a handful of idiots chanting his name, and he was losing it.
I don’t think it would work in Boston. I think 90% of the fans would be completely open to him and excited about the team’s potential. And I think 10% would be ready to boo the minute he had a mopey attitude in a playoff game. That first boo would be the end of the experiment. The sports media would have a field day. He would become so embittered he would demand a trade. There is a zen saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” As much as Sacramento has been a horrible place for him to develop, with close to no stability and structure, he hasn’t been able to let things go and develop the “next play” mentality that it takes to become the epicenter (center, epicenter, Epcot Center) of a team.
JS: At this point, it is hard to argue that he’d magically fit whatever situation he’s brought into.
JH: It’s unfair to paint him, his emotional imbalances and lack of maturity (now at age 26?) as the only issues, as the franchise in Sacramento hasn’t supported his development, and as soon as things started going well with a coach — Mike Malone, 9–6 record to start the year a couple years back — Cousins went out with meningitis, the team fell apart, and then Malone was fired. Things have been upside down there for too long. There are a bunch of horrible things that have happened. So many awful draft picks. So much chaos. But recently, I read he was berating a Sacramento reporter because of a story in the Sac Bee about his off-court issues, one incident in NYC and a situation involving a bar fight and his brother in Tampa. He was fined 50k by the team. I just don’t see him working his demons out. Which is a real shame, considering how great he could be. Trust has to go both ways.
JS: Yeah, hopefully it works out for him somewhere. Sacramento obviously doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence with their moves the last few years. The West is pretty bad this year, so maybe they can get the 8th seed? I doubt it. He shoots 5 threes a game now apparently. That is a lot of threes. The Jim O’Brien Celtics were ahead of their time. Antoine missed out, now no one would be pissed at all of those threes he took. Cousins took 8 three pointers two years ago.. In the whole season.
Antoine Walker was asked why he shot so many 3-pointers and replied, “There are no fours.”
JH: Yep, Dave Joerger realized that 3 points is worth more than 2! For Cousins, 38 percent is way better than good enough to launch from deep. Antoine is somewhere saying “I told you all!”
Zach Lowe recently wrote about the NBA’s hot scoring trend and what it means. The three-pointer made-up 24% of all shots two years ago, 28% last year, and 31% so far this year. Offensive efficiency is at historic levels this year. But the conclusion was that it’s too early to tell. 82 games. A few factors: no teams are really tanking, and about 6 teams are ridiculously good, which skews the averages.
“Threes are more contagious than the flu, which is pretty contagious,” says Kelly Olynyk.
JH: We’ve zigzagged across the NBA landscape here, but let’s come back to the Celtics before we wrap it up. On a scale of 1–10, how badly do you want to see Andew Bogut (if we only have to give up a non-Brooklyn 1st rounder):
JS: That’s an interesting one; I like Bogut, but obviously he can’t shoot. Would he take Amir’s minutes? I’d probably say 6 or so. Bogut can pass, would certainly rather see him than Zeller against the big centers (which is pretty much the only time Zeller plays). Amir is shooting 40% from three! He basically won a game for them earlier in the year with 3s, which is pretty crazy.
JH: Amir gets hot, Amir loads up that three. I love it. It takes four seconds for him to prepare the shot, but it goes in! The Raptors and Celtics are 28th and 29th in defensive rebounding over the last dozen. I think Bogut helps in certain crucial moments against the best teams. Watching him in Golden State, he is so good at playoff basketball. A great screen-setter, passer, shot-blocker, and as desperately need…rebounding.
JS: Rebounding and shot-blocking are definite needs. Does he clog the paint too much? They don’t really guard Amir so my guess is it wouldn’t be that different.
JH: He would clog things up for sure. I like him as a five-minute stretch option in certain matchups. It’s one of those strange things: he might only play 15 minutes per game in the playoffs, but those reserve minutes, or crunch time minutes when Tristan Thompson is abusing us…they kill you in April and May.
I wanted to bring up 2018–19 Celtics for a second and then open up to any other developments, thoughts, Celtics or otherwise. What do you see as a likely ceiling for Terry Rozier? Jaylen Brown? Is there room for all four of Isaiah, Bradley, Smart and Rozier assuming we sign Isaiah for a massive deal? I guess that’s a better starting question: Do we sign Isaiah in two years for a three-year massive deal? Tiny guys don’t seem to age well…but I am in love with him.
JS: If he keeps playing like this, I think you have to. He’ll only be 29/30 when the contract is up. If he’s been an playing at this level for 4 years at that point, can you justify not paying him? I know he is somewhat of a liability on defense, but he tries at least. He’s also a ton of fun to watch which might make it more likely they keep him.
JH: The most exciting player to watch wearing a Celtics uniform since…Antoine! By the way, Antoine wrote a great “Letter to My Younger Self” at the Player’s Tribune.
JS: Isaiah does some crazy things out there; someone was comparing him to Iverson. I’m not sure he’s on that level, but from an offensive perspective I don’t think they’ve ever had anyone this exciting to watch (maybe Bird? I’m too young for that). There’s something about a 5’8” guy succeeding that is somehow relatable and amazing.
JH: Isaiah is a much better shooter, but Iverson was incomparable, the way he attacked the rim..weighing 165 pounds. I’ve always loved the shortest guys. (Shout out to Phil Pressey!) Isaiah’s swagger is contagious. You see him get tackled, and sometimes, you hold your breath, but he always staggers back up, and then drains the free-throws. I’m terrified something will go wrong before this year’s playoffs. The usage rate is through the roof. Also — don’t know how Westbrook can continue using 40% of OKC’s possessions and last through April.
JS: Well, I hope we get to see it happen! Westbrook v. Warriors in the first round would be fun (seems like it won’t happen given how bad the teams looking at the 8th seed are right now). Westbrook v. World is pretty amazing to watch. He absolutely torched the Celtics in that game in Boston, and they were all over him with their best defenders contesting threes at the end.. Didn’t matter.
JH: I was amazed. Bradley and Smart were doing everything they could. Westbrook was unreal. It might happen. I can see the Spurs really pushing Golden State, and taking the top seed. The West playoffs won’t be as intriguing as two years ago (that first round was insane), but Memphis is looking like they’re still alive (beating GSW in Oakland thanks to a Zach Randolph revival), and Utah is genuinely tough.
JS: Yeah, there are 7 good teams in the West. If the Warriors don’t become invincible it should be a fun playoffs.
JH: Last question: Does Jaylen Brown crack 38% from deep next year? If he does, should he be playing equal minutes with Crowder (assuming we don’t sign or trade a small forward) Maybe that situation is more likely 2018–19?
JS: I don’t think so, and I don’t think so? I think Brown is going to be good (he’s shooting 32% from three now, which isn’t that bad). He’s still so young though. Defensively it seems like he should be good (and sometimes he is), but sometimes he clearly gets lost out there. Crowder has somehow quietly put up a ridiculous shooting line this year (48/42/88). I’d like to see him drive more, and I feel like his defensive presence hasn’t been as strong as the past, but he’s really good! Brown is better at creating his own shot, which is probably useful on the second unit.
JH: Crowder is 41st in the NBA in plus-minus (best on the team). Horford is 62nd. Smart is 67th. Crowder is the unsung hero, which is why it was so frustrating to see the whole pre-game Hayward cheering debacle.
JS: Yeah, if Isaiah wasn’t around I could see Brown getting more minutes since I think he’s going to be good at that. As it is, having someone that can hit an open shot and defend their position is more valuable.
The Hayward thing was sad. Hopefully they’ll just move past it. Social media can cause some problems. I think Crowder was justified with his response, but making it public wasn’t great, especially around here where the media will bring it up every time his name is mentioned for the rest of his career.
JH: Agreed. It’s like drunk texting. Airing your frustrations in the moment will probably end up being an issue when the moronic fan is involved. Here’s to Jae! And 99 more wins with him. That was corny.
JS: He’s unfortunately one of the more likely trade candidates, but we’ll see!
JH: Any other thoughts on the C’s or NBA in general?
JS: The Rockets are crazy good. I hope someone can make the conference finals interesting.
JH: This is the year of the three-pointer. The Rockets should change their name to the Houston Hardens..though that sounds vaguely sexual.
JS: One letter away from overt! Who do you think will be MVP? Harden? Seems like it will be him since the Rockets look like they’ll have a significantly better record than the Thunder. Will Westbrook average a triple double? I can’t believe he’s still doing it. He actually has more rebounds than assists.
JH: I think he’s drinking some experimental potion. MVP: Russell Harden. James Westbrook. The three-point line should win MVP.
JS: Here’s to Avery Bradley rebounds. Hopefully that Achilles is feeling fine on Tuesday.
JH: Hopefully, indeed! We’ll have to do this again in March.
Jonah and Jared have been obsessively following the Celtics and the NBA for two decades. They both miss Antoine Walker’s shimmy.
Jonah’s new hoops memoir, Beyond the Arc, will be available in February.