Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Brad Stevens opted for a smaller lineup in Game 3 against the Bulls, hoping his Celtics could stretch the floor to open up an offense that struggled with spacing in Games 1 and 2 losses.

The plan worked, as the Celtics hit 17 3-pointers and were able to switch with ease defensively. But it was the smallest player in that lineup who ultimately made the biggest difference. Isaiah Thomas didn't post gaudy numbers, and the King of the Fourth scored just two points in the final period.

Instead the Celtics leader, still in mourning, was masterful in a game his team needed already trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Thomas' 16 points were the fewest he had scored all season playing normal minutes, and he made just 7 of 18 attempts from the field. But he also handed out nine assists, his highest total since late January, controlling the Celtics offense that looked far more like itself than it had in the first two games, scoring 104 points on 48 percent shooting in a blowout victory Friday night in Chicago.

"Isaiah is such a tough guard. Once he gets into the teeth of the defense, when he kicks it out and we're making the next pass and the next pass and everyone's touching the ball, that's fun basketball," said Avery Bradley, who added 15 points and a career-high seven assists. "Everyone’s playing with confidence, everyone understands they need to take the shots that's coming their way, and it's fun basketball."

With Rajon Rondo sidelined, Thomas took advantage of a Bulls defense that continued to pressure him whenever he received the ball. Whereas in the first two games Thomas looked rushed and forced a handful of shots – he went 6-for-15 in Game 2 – Thomas was patient in finding open shooters and cutters off those double-teams. He didn't pass more often; he simply made better passes. His teammates mirrored his efficient play, too. In addition to his nine assists, Thomas had three secondary assists as well.

With Stevens opting to play small with four players on the perimeter, it allowed Al Horford more room to operate inside. That meant pick-and-roll action with Thomas, and the pair sliced up a Bulls defense that had no answer in Robin Lopez or help defense because of the floor spacing. During the Celtics' decisive 20-7 scoring run in the third quarter, Thomas assisted on all four Horford baskets, three of which came at the rim.

"I though Isaiah was great," said Horford, who received assists from Thomas on six of his eight field goals. "I feel like he really was reading the defense, just making the simple play and knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass."

Thomas' shot was off for a second straight game – he was 3-for-10 in the first half despite four assists – and the constant double-teams and hedging didn't allow the league's second leading scorer much room to work.

But his two biggest shots came during that third-quarter run when Thomas hustled to catch the Bulls defense out of order following missed shots. He buried a triple over Jerian Grant on the right wing and on the next possession connected from the top of the key to push the Celtics' lead to nine. Later in the quarter a Thomas hesitation layup past Dwyane Wade put the Celtics up by double-digits for the remainder of the game.

"We put our offense in Isaiah's hands but he has to make the right play, whether it be driving and kick, scoring opportunity," Crowder said. "We put it all in his hands to make a play and he did a great job tonight."

That Thomas even took the floor Friday night was impressive in its own right. The All-Star point guard had spent the previous two days in Tacoma, Washington, with his family mourning the loss of his 22-year-old sister, killed in a car accident last Saturday morning.

Thomas has understandably opted not to speak with media since the series began Sunday evening. The Celtics released a statement on Wednesday from Thomas in which he called it "without question the hardest week of my life." Stevens said that Thomas was feeling better after returning to the team Thursday night before Game 3, and that both Thomas and the team were happy he traveled home during the team's off-days.

"For me it's all about, we have to maintain the perspective that there's gonna be some real ups and downs, and that’s just part of it," Stevens said. "And we're here to support him and we're gonna do our jobs and coach and play basketball, but we understand that there is a bigger picture and we are here as his support network that's in Boston. There's going to be times, as you all know, as you go on certainly time provides some healing, but you're always going to have days.”

No one can be sure how Thomas is feeling, save for those closest to him. But for one night in Chicago, the 5-foot-9 point guard stood tall and turned in a performance that his team needed. How the series plays out from this point – the Celtics still need to win Game 4 on Sunday to avoid a 3-1 hole – will be dictated largely on how Thomas plays.

He looked like a new player in Game 3 - Crowder added that Thomas' trip home acted as a "fresh start" - and more like the MVP candidate who, if he continues this play, can lead the top-seeded Celtics back from the hole they put themselves in.

High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft


High-flying Brandon Clarke looking to jump into top-10 of 2019 NBA Draft

We see this type of story every year. A player who received little attention during the college basketball season parlays a strong finish and impressive athletic testing results into a rapid climb up NBA draft boards.

Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke is one of the players making that kind of jump this year. The 6-foot-8 Clarke was projected as a second round pick at the start of the season, playing in the shadow of his more acclaimed frontcourt mate Rui Hachimura as the Zags won another West Coast Conference title and advanced to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

Clarke started receiving some first round buzz late in the season and really caught the attention of NBA scouts with a 36 point, eight rebound, five block performance against Baylor in a second round NCAA tournament game. His numbers for the season are impressive: 16.9 points per game on 68.7 percent shooting from the field, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. And, he followed that up by testing out No. 1 at his position at the NBA Draft Combine with a 34 inch standing vertical, a 40.5 inch max vertical, and a 3.15 second three-quarter court sprint.

Still, in today's three point centric NBA, some teams are concerned about Clarke's limited shooting range, with most of his points coming within 10 feet of the basket. Clarke says that won't be an issue when he gets a chance to work out for teams over the next four weeks.

"Honestly, it's really just about getting a lot of reps," Clarke said. "I've been getting up so many reps with the NBA ball, from the NBA three, and I've been shooting it really, really well. I'm really hoping that teams get to see that, and know that I've been working on it, and taking pride in getting better every day. If I can just keep on getting better, and teams can see that, I think it will help me out a lot."

Clarke is now considered a possible top-10 pick, with several mock drafts having him going to the forward needy Washington Wizards at No. 9, ahead of Hachimura, who may have received a promise from the Timberwolves at No. 11. There's no question Clarke is an explosive leaper who should have an impact at the defensive end from Day 1.

"Blocking shots is something that pretty obviously I'm good at. I was top 3 in the country last year for college basketball," he said. "So, with that being said, I think I'm only going to get better at it. Just something I can bring to any team I get drafted to pretty quickly."

Just about every college player has to adjust to facing bigger and stronger players once they get to the NBA. It’s one thing to dominate against the likes of Pacific and Pepperdine, but can Clarke succeed against some of the elite power forwards in the NBA? He understands the importance of hitting the weight room this summer.

"That’s something that I would love to do. Obviously, the guys are bigger in the league, so I’m going to have to be bigger too," he said. "There are so many players who have changed their bodies once they got there, so I’m not really nervous about that. I'm just looking forward to playing against bigger guys and better competition."

Would the Bulls consider Clarke at No. 7? There is a need for an athletic power forward to play behind Lauri Markkanen, but Clarke's skillset is eerily similar to all-time Bulls draft bust Tyrus Thomas, and that in itself will probably drop him on the team's draft board. Unless the Bulls trade down, their pick will likely come from a group that includes Coby White, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter.

Like so many other players in the 2019 draft, Clarke falls into the risk/reward category, with his ability to develop a consistent outside shot critical to his long term success. Still, it's been a remarkable climb for a player who was lightly regarded by most NBA teams just a few short months ago.

Around the association

You couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for Golden State All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who was informed after practice on Thursday that he failed to make one of the three All-NBA teams, potentially costing him $30 million on a max contract this summer.

With so many talented guards in the league right now, it's hardly a slight that Thompson failed to finish among the top-6 in media voting. Who would you leave out among the guards that made it? Steph Curry and James Harden were the first team choices, with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving on the second team and Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker third team selections.

An obviously agitated Thompson didn't appreciate receiving the news from the media, and openly questioned how Golden State's run of five-straight Finals appearances didn't carry more weight with the voters. Thompson said it wasn't a big deal, and he would rather win a championship than make an All-NBA team. But knowing how much money he just lost had to be a painful pill to swallow, especially considering a guard from a non-playoff team like Walker was voted to the third team, making him eligible for the super max contract Thompson just lost.

Speaking of Walker, will that All-NBA honor wind up being his ticket out of Charlotte? Hornets' general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team will do everything possible to keep the three-time All-Star, but the price tag for a max extension is now a lot higher, and the small market Hornets may decide they're better off not committing huge dollars to their 29-year-old point guard.

Charlotte has been unable to build a consistent winner despite a number of high draft picks and the ill-fated five-year contract given to Nicolas Batum. Bringing Walker back on a super max deal would lock them into the current roster for the foreseeable future, and given the fact Charlotte has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years, is that really the best strategy? If the Hornets decide to move on from Kemba, teams like Indiana, Dallas and the Clippers will be waiting with ample cap space to offer Walker a four-year max contract.

As we've seen with the explosion of quarterback salaries in the NFL, it seems like every offseason brings a new record contract. How about this factoid from ESPN'S NBA Insider Bobby Marks, who tweeted; earning All-NBA for a second consecutive season now has Giannis Antetokounmpo eligible in the summer of 2020 to sign the largest contract in NBA history. The five-year extension starting in 2021-22 would be worth $247.3 million and carry a $42.6, $46.0, $49.5, $52.9 and $56.3 million cap hit.

There's no question the Bucks will gladly offer that super max extension to a 24-year-old superstar who still has room to grow as player. Giannis is expected to win his first MVP award this season, even though the current playoff series against Toronto is showing how badly he needs to add a consistent jumper and improved free throw shooting to his game. Antetokounmpo's freakish skills and Mike Budenholzer's offensive system have made small market Milwaukee a legitimate championship contender, which is no small feat in a star-driven NBA where players routinely make decisions about their futures based on factors that have very little to do with basketball. Right now, Giannis is happy in Milwaukee and the Bucks are lucky to have the best young player in the game.

Of course, NBA teams wouldn't be paying those kind of salaries if the league wasn't making record profits. Business is good, especially after the new TV deals that went into effect a few years ago. And, with the advent of legalized gambling potentially opening up even more revenue streams, NBA owners will see the value of their franchises continue to soar.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Previewing the 2019 NBA Draft with Jordan Cornette


Bulls Talk Podcast: Previewing the 2019 NBA Draft with Jordan Cornette

On this edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski is joined by ESPN college basketball analyst Jordan Cornette to discuss the upcoming 2019 NBA Draft and what options the Bulls will have when they go on the clock at No. 7.

0:45        What’s coming up for Jordan
2:20        Impact of Bulls dropping to seven in the draft
3:45        On Cam Reddish and his pro potential, should Bulls take him?
5:50        Should Bulls take a risk at 7 and go with highest potential? Jarrett Culver discussion
7:55        On Kevin Porter Jr and Nassir Little, too risky to take at 7? Jordan explains why Luguentz Dort is his sleeper
10:35     On mid first round and potential for risk among teams
13:20     Bulls 2nd round pick options, why PG probably won’t be an option at 7
15:00     Jordan’s pick for the Bulls at 7
16:50     On free agency, Bulls need at PG
19:08     Jordan on a potential Derrick Rose return
21:14     Do either the Bucks or Raptors have a chance vs Golden State?