Isaiah Thomas had quite the game on Sunday, scoring 33 points on 23 shots while getting 9 assists. He caused the Wizards all types of fits, but the things that the Wizards were doing on defense are very fixable and simple adjustments can give them a chance to slow his production.
Thomas is a very crafty player who is capable of finding ways around the court to give himself angles to get shots and to set up his teammates, but his stature and lack of elite athleticism can limit his ability against bigger guards who are capable of staying in front of him like John Wall.
To counteract John Wall’s disruptive abilities, the Celtics used the pick and roll often to give Thomas the space to allow him to create opportunities for himself and others. It was interesting to see how often these pick and rolls were used to set Thomas up to go to left, which is his strong hand. Here are two examples:
The pick and roll offense with Thomas going to his left was lethal. Even when the Wizards came over to contest a driving Thomas, the defense had to collapse and that created open looks for other players.
So how do you stop him?
Make him go right!!!
As fundamental as this sounds for basketball, it is always advantageous to take away a player’s strong hand. In the NBA, this type of strategy isn’t as prevalent since most players are capable of using either hand, but forcing a player to go to his least effective hand can at least slow down some of their potential to attack. For instance, all six threes Thomas missed in Game 1 came on shots where he was either moving or dribbling right before he took the shot.
But make or miss, the Wizards are much better off when they can get the ball out of Thomas’ hands and force someone else to beat them. Here, the Wizards were able to force Thomas to make a difficult pass thanks to some good help defense:
The defense here was good up until Markieff Morris failed to rotate back over to Olynyk. If Morris would have been able to rotate over quicker, Olynyk would have had to shoot a contested three or else the Celtics would have had to reset the offense with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. Either way, by getting the ball out of Thomas’ hand, you are forcing someone else to beat you. Generally, that’s what Washington should be trying to do, even though it didn’t work in the play above.
Out of all the plays where Isaiah Thomas was forced to go right, I believe one particular play stood out as the blueprint that should be used for the rest of the series.
This was just a superb job of team defense. If Thomas was going left, it would have been harder to slow him down and keep him contained. But because he was going right, he was looking to pass which allowed Otto Porter to jump the passing lane and force one Thomas’ two turnovers.
Hedge Thomas and Rotate
No matter what direction you go on defense, the goal is to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands. If you are unable to make him go left, then it may be helpful to simply have the screener’s defender - most likely a big man - to hedge Thomas and force the ball out of his hand that way. In the play with Morris and Wall guarding, the defense that was used is a good example of how you can hedge him. If the Wizards can simply do better on rotation on that play, then that can be an effective way to get the ball out of his hand.
And as we saw earlier, it’s not just his ability to score, but it’s also his ability to collapse the defense. If you can keep him out of the lane, by stopping his momentum outside the three point line instead of waiting for the helping to rotate over in the lane, then you can force the ball out of his hand sooner and force someone else to create their own shot. Of course if you consider the idea of hedging, your rotations from your help defense have to be sharp in order to not leave anyone open.
There is no doubt that Thomas is a talented player, but the Wizards will need to do a better job of getting the ball out of his hand earlier instead of allowing him to control the defense and how they react to him. If the Wizards make these simple adjustments, I believe they give themselves some tools that will give them a chance to steal Game 2 and perhaps change the momentum the rest of the series.