The Wizards lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals for several reasons. They let Boston connect on 19 of 39 three-pointers. They were outscored by 20 points in the third quarter. They missed the difference that Markieff Morris can make.
In overcoming a 16-0 deficit to start, the Celtics later led by 17 points and eventually won, 123-111. The lead changed hands exactly once as Boston enjoyed sizable contributions from forward Jae Crowder (6-of-8 behind the arc) and center Al Horford (21 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists).
The biggest boost came from the smallest player, point guard Isaiah Thomas, who led all scorers with 33 points, hitting 5-of-11 3-pointers and dishing out nine assists.
Thomas has been the Celtics’ pivotal player all season. An unfortunate layer was added to his story with the death of his sister, whose funeral he attended on Saturday before flying cross country and arriving back in Boston at 4 a.m., nine hours before he torched the Wizards and lost a tooth in the process.
It’s hard to root against him. He’s 5-foot-9 in a land of giants. He’s looks like a cute little kid, a slightly bigger version than his son. He’s playing with a heavy heart. That’s Hollywood stuff. I get it.
But the Wizards can’t take it easy on Thomas. They should punish him early and often, on offense when he drives and on defense when he hides.
You notice how often Wizards guard John Wall goes to the floor? Opponents have no problem hitting him with clean, hard fouls on his forays to the basket. Sometimes the whistle blows, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, Wall often pays a toll for entering the lane.
No more E-ZPass for Thomas. He needs to hit the hardwood sometimes, too.
Thomas is well-acquainted with the free-throw line. He ranked seventh in the NBA this season in free throw attempts game (8.5). And his shots usually go in, at a rate of 90.9 percent.
None of the Wizards came close to fouling out in Game 1. Bradly Beal had a team-high four personal fouls. The other starters had four combined, though Morris’ departure with a sprained ankle made the number artificially low. Still, Washington should get its money’s worth on Thomas. Nothing dirty, mind you. But they need to exchange the soft bumps that draw whistles on the perimeter, with hard knocks that inflict pain in the paint.
And speaking of the paint, it’s time for the Wizards to brush up their games down there.
There were too many instances when the player guarded by Thomas – Otto Porter or Kelly Oubre or Bojan Bogdanovic – was parked in the corner or spotted up on the wing. Those Wizards are 6’8, 6’7 and 6’8, respectively. They let Thomas off the hook by staying outside, letting him conserve energy for offense.
Whoever Thomas guards should open a post office virtually every trip downcourt. They should go right to the block and set up shop like a Dunkin Donuts, poking holes in Thomas’ defense.
There’s nothing wrong with a little bump-and-grind, especially to wear down the diminutive fellow and maybe put him in foul trouble.
Granted, the strategy won’t surprise the Celtics. Going at Thomas has been a given for opponents all season; he ranks last in defense among 86 point guards listed on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (-4.16).
But those deficiencies didn’t prevent Boston from winning 53 games, claiming the Eastern Conference’s top seed or taking a 1-0 advantage against Washington.
Among Boston coach Brad Stevens’ attributes is his ability to hide Thomas for long stretches. One trick is making sure as much as possible that three of the other four teammates are Avery Bradley, Al Horford and either Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder. All are plus-defenders who help compensate for Thomas’ shortcomings. Another gimmick is using a zone-type defense that allows Thomas to remain in a corner while his teammates execute sort of a reverse box-and-one.
The Wizards want to be careful, though, because focusing on Thomas too much can backfire. Teams can become so intent on exploiting the 5-foot-9 sparkplug, they abandon their normal offense and get out of kilter.
Isolations and clear-outs, in attempts to back Shorty down, can turn other players into spectators instead of threats.
That said, the Wizards should adjust the offense to create more opportunities near the basket for whoever Thomas guards. They can’t allow him to just hang out on the perimeter and barely break a sweat until he runs the other way.
Other tweaks from Washington coach Scott Brooks undoubtedly are necessary and they’ll be harder to pull off if Morris is limited. The Wizards need to play their game with more attention to detail and more attitude on defense.
But the Celtics are a team where you can flip the script. Instead just taking what they give you, you can decide to take what you want. In this case, it’s attacking Thomas like there’s a personal vendetta.
And on the other end, it’s making him wince when he goes to the basket.
Thomas is the head of the Celtics and maybe the Wizards can’t cut it off.
They still should whack at it as much as possible.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.