WALTHAM, Mass. – The plan – for now at least – is for Marcus Smart to return to the Boston Celtics starting lineup when his left big toe injury is healthy enough for him to resume playing.
But the numbers in Smart’s absence suggest the Celtics should at least give some thought to keeping Isaiah Thomas with the first unit.
One of the concerns the Celtics’ brass has expressed in the past with having Thomas start games is that having him come off the bench makes managing his minutes easier to keep him as fresh as possible in the fourth quarter of games.
“Reality is you want to make sure over the course of the game you’re giving guys the appropriate amount of rest,” said coach Brad Stevens who added that plans to give Thomas an early rest in the last two games failed to come about in each instance.. “To maximize themselves at the end.”
At 5-foot-9, Thomas has to expend a tremendous amount of energy and effort to be an impact scorer. His ability to score in bunches becomes even more valuable at the end of games. This season, Thomas ranks ninth in fourth quarter scoring (6.5 points per game) among players who have played in as many games (four) as he has this season.
That’s not all that surprising when you consider last season he was the league’s sixth leading fourth quarter scorer (6.2 fourth quarter points per game), ahead of notables such as Portland’s Damian Lillard, Houston's James Harden and league MVP Stephen Curry.
Starting or coming off the bench, Thomas plans to play the same.
“I’m just going to be myself,” he said. “And that’s aggressive. And not just make plays for myself, but my teammates. If I’m starting or coming off the bench, I’m a point guard that leads this team and makes decisions for this team. You have to be ready for any opportunity you get.”
And to Thomas’ credit, he has looked every bit the part of a starter in the last two games. In those games, he has averaged 21.5 points, 7.5 assists, 2.0 steals while shooting 50 percent on 3s.
Having Thomas start has not surprisingly jump-started the Celtics offense. But they have also stepped their collective games up defensively, too.
Scoring (108.0 to 100.7) and shooting (43.9 to 39.6 percent) for the Celtics are up the last two games, while opponent scoring (101.0 first three games, 99.0 the last two games) is down.
And if you look deeper into the analytic findings, the Celtics’ offensive rate (105.0), rebounding percentage (51.0), effective Field Goal Percentage (50.0) and PACE (103.67) in the last two games are all better than the team’s numbers in those respective categories in the first three games. In addition, the team's defensive rating has dropped to 94.8 in the last two games compared to 95.4 after the first three.
Still, the Celtics know that keeping Thomas as fresh as possible down the stretch of games, provides them with the best chance at victory.
And as far as having his minutes being somewhat limited, Thomas has told Stevens and the coaching staff his feelings on that matter.
“Forget that! I’m trying to play as many minutes as possible,” said Thomas who is averaging a shade below 30 minutes this season. “I train in the offseason to be prepared for that, and to maximize my time out there while I’m on the court. I tell coach (Stevens) all the time, ‘I do want to play 48 minutes.’ it’s not realistic, but I’m capable of playing 30, 35 minutes and play at a high level. That’s what I’m in the gym for each and every day. Whenever my name is called, just be ready.”