CLEVELAND -- As Avery Bradley boarded the team plane for Cleveland, something was missing, or rather someone.
And that is when it hit him that these two games in Cleveland -- the rest of the playoffs, for that matter -- had changed.
Indeed, things had gone from bad to worse for the Celtics, who were going to be playing without Isaiah Thomas, their scoring leader whose play most games set the tone for how the rest of the team would perform.
He suffered a right hip injury on March 15, missed a couple games, and has since been managing the pain and discomfort.
Thomas re-aggravated the injury in the first half of Boston’s Game 2 loss to Cleveland on Friday, was unable to return and on Saturday was ruled out for the rest of the postseason.
And while Boston will certainly miss having his presence on the floor, there are actually a few potential positives for Boston that might actually make tonight’s Game 3 matchup a bit more competitive.
First and foremost, Thomas’ injury has bothered him for a while which gives some much-needed context as to how he hasn’t been able to dominate or more specifically, get into the paint and finish the way he did for most of this past regular season.
We were quick to chalk it up to better defense by opponents, which certainly was a factor.
But if he has been struggling with his right hip, that means he has not been able to explode to the basket how he’s used to, stop on the drop of a dime and pull-up for transition 3’s … basically do the things that separated him from so many in the NBA this season.
And if he’s not able to do those things, he does nothing but hurt the team if he’s out there limping around.
The most noticeable difference in the team without Thomas will be seen defensively.
While Thomas is a significantly better scorer than his replacement Marcus Smart, Boston’s defense gets a definite boost with Smart with the starters instead of Thomas.
According to nba.com, the starting five of Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Al Horford has actually played well together this season.
The five-man group shot 50.3 percent from the field during the regular season, 46.5 percent on 3s and had an offensive rating of 108.6.
And defensively, they held opponents to 45.4 percent shooting from the field, 30.9 percent on 3s (that’s huge considering how well the Cavs have shot from 3-point range in the first two games) while registering a defensive rating of 100.6.
Maybe most significant defensively is that teams can no longer isolate one of the Celtics starters to try and go at him the way they have tried to attack the 5-foot-9 Thomas.
“A lot of teams try to pick on I.T. because he’s small and think that because he’s small they can do it,” Smart said. “So, that helps us out on the defensive end, that we can switch a little more.”
And offensively, the Celtics become a lot less predictable without Thomas because there’s no definitive go-to scorer for Boston now.
Boston has been among the NBA’s leaders when it comes to ball movement all season, while seemingly picking up in the postseason where they left off by averaging a league-best 308.6 made passes per game which is tops among all playoff teams. That directly ties in with their 51.2 potential assists per game which is also number one among playoff teams.
That strength will have to be amplified tonight if they are to hang with the champs.
“I think so, it has to go to another level,” said Al Horford. “I feel that’s when we’re at our best, when we’re playing and we have to make sure we make them defend and we don’t bail them out with bad shots.”