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.