Throughout the ding dong affair between Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals, there was an inevitable feeling Boston’s chances to progress were limited as long as Point Guard Isaiah Thomas was kept in check. At 5 foot 9 inches, Thomas would usually be hounded by double and triple teams from opposing sides as the basic rule to beat Boston into submission. Aside Thomas, very little consistency from other members prevented the team from fully exploring its high potential.
In last season’s playoffs for instance, Boston crashed out of the first round following Atlanta Hawks decision to throw everyone at the pocket sized Guard forcing him to give up the ball and in the process, give up Boston’s chances of progressing deep into the postseason. In the first and second games of the semifinals, Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks failed to adhere to this simple rule and got torched by Thomas including a 53 point performance.
Though he recovered in time to get his side just a game from setting up a date with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, the damage had already been done. Throw in the team’s rebounding woes and not even Brad Stevens wizardry on the boards could raise Boston’s limited ceiling.
Stevens ability to adjust on the fly, has made him easily the most sought after young tactical head in the game but he did not need a special trick to get Celtics a pass to the next round and compete in the conference final for the first time since 2012. All he had to do was look out West to free his star and get his team working at maximum level all the same. Stevens Coach of the Year co nominee Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets have played with a simple tactic so good it was enough to get the side a spot in the same position as Boston but in the more stronger conference. James Harden’s tricks and shooting inevitably draws double teams to him which opens up spots behind the defense for teammates to exploit.
Harden and Thomas are All-Stars but neither man affects the game best without the ball in his hands. Though Harden is surrounded by guys who are specialists in sinking the three point shot, Thomas does not have that privilege as the best talents around him are best classified as good shooters. Their inconsistencies tend to be a huge worry for Boston faithful whose rebuilt team has more to offer presently and in the future. However, putting Thomas in a playmaking spot more than that of a scorer helped put away a stubborn side and give guys like Game 7 hero Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley much needed confidence to compete against the mighty Cavs.
Not all is rosy as Thomas fed passes missed the target on several occasions but repeating the trick got Olynyk to go off for a surprising 26 point outing to get past a stunned Wizards side. In a series that has had the Canadian’s name back in the bad playoffs press for a scuffle with Wizards Kelly Oubre Jnr, it was the perfect way to back his stance as a clean player. In Games 5 and 6, Bradley scored consecutive 25+ points for the first time in his postseason career in the process. Applying a similar strategy, San Antonio’s second rated defensive unit used to oust Harden in a game the bearded MVP candidate scored just 10 points and committed six turnovers, Boston’s 14th rated defensive unit forced John Wall into an 18 point performance in the decider.
That stat line looks impressive but it doesn’t rank as high as the numbers Wall recorded in previous games in the series. More satisfying is the former Kentucky speedy Guard’s woeful shooting from the three point line where he scored just one of 8 attempts. Days earlier, Wall extended Washington’s run in the series with a deep three with 3.5 seconds left to play. Limiting one half of Wizards major production unit was the best route to take to what could possibly be the first of many battles to come against LeBron James and the Cavs like it was some years ago. Taking notes, one good, one bad from Houston’s play this series has forced Boston into a showdown a first seed should be in.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter