It's been a rocky season so far in Boston, where the Celtics, expected to challenge for top spot in the Eastern Conference (non-Cleveland division), are firmly in the crowded middle of the pack at 10-8, one of eight teams hovering between eight and ten wins as November winds down.
The Celtics came in to 2016-17 looking to assert themselves as primary challenger to the Cavaliers by bolstering their defense, which was already among the league's best, while improving their offensive efficiency. Right away, they ran into injury trouble. Al Horford, who was picked up over the summer to provide the team with a much-needed rim protector and offensive option in the paint, got a concussion less than a week into the season and missed nine games; Jae Crowder, their best wing defender and No. 3 scorer last year, missed eight with an ankle injury.
"We're still trying to get better at certain things, but we know who we are," Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said prior to shootaround last week in Brooklyn. "And we've got to slowly get back to that. The offense, to be what it is now, which is a high level. And getting the defense to where it is playing as well."
Thomas himself is a key part of the Boston's identity, and the fact that the team is still within a few games of that second seed in the East despite the injuries is a testament to his evolution into an even greater offensive threat this year.
After making his first All-Star Game appearance last season, Thomas is averaging a career-high 26.1 points per game so far in 2016-17. His usage percentage is up, too, to 33.4 percent—another career best. He currently ranks ninth in the league in points per game, while his 33.3 assist percentage is a career high. But despite taking 1.8 shots more per game than last year, his efficiency hasn't suffered—his overall field goal percentage is up, and he's shooting better from the midrange. Last year, from 10-16 feet, he shot 38.2 percent. From 16 feet to the three-point line, he checked in at 36.2 percent. This year, so far? He's at 50 percent from 10-16 and 52.6 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line, according to basketball-reference.com. The sample is still small, but it's an area Thomas focused on during his offseason training.
Thomas spent the summer back home in Seattle getting up shots from middle distance, not quitting until he reached 500 makes in early-morning workouts. If he didn't have anything to do, he'd go back at night. "I knew being able to shoot the ball at a higher level would let me reach a new level as a player," Thomas said. He'd seen the numbers—he understood the midrange was a weak spot for him, and he spent more time on that part of the floor this summer than ever before.
This is not to say the Celtics have designed their offense around the Isaiah Thomas 15-footer. Quite the contrary: the shot is often a safety valve when defenses take away other options at the rim or the perimeter.
"I think that's what people give up," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "You can't take everything away, and people around the league want to force midrange shots. So the ability to make those is a real positive. Anything you're trying to get is a layup, or an inside-out three. So everything else is a reaction to how you're being guarded."
Thomas has become a triple threat on offense: he can seemingly get to the basket at will despite standing just 5-foot-9, converting driving layups about 57 percent of the time. He shoots the three reasonably well, too, and now his midrange jumper can punish opponents for overcommitting on defense.
The discussion around the Celtics over the past several seasons revolved around precisely when they'd add that legit No. 1 scoring option—the assumption, made universally, was that no one on hand fit the bill. Of course, that's an extraordinarily hard piece to land, normally requiring a max contract on the free agent market, another star already in tow to lure said max free agent, or the right lottery pick in the right season. Well, Thomas is now Boston's No. 1 option. That's a problem solved.
And the knock-on reasons this matters so much in the league—the reason so many teams have now geared their entire existence around acquiring such a player—is the effect it has on supporting players. Look at Avery Bradley. Simply playing next to the new Thomas, with more room to shoot, has lifted his three-point field goal percentage from 36.1 to 40.2 percent, while he's holding steady from two despite taking 2.4 more shots per game. Together, Thomas and Bradley are among the more dynamic backcourts in the league.
That complements a defense that finished fourth in the NBA in efficiency last season, without Horford. They are No. 22 right now, but that is largely a function of their leaky first six games—after which, Stevens noted, they were 30th. A fully healthy Crowder and Horford have made an enormous difference the past few games, and that is with Horford still getting acclimated to his new defensive rotations.
The Celtics are looking at a relatively easy schedule in the near term, with upcoming games against Sacramento, and a trip to Philly. Things should get easier for Stevens, too, thanks to a fully-available roster. Against the Spurs on Sunday, Crowder, looking like his pre-injury self, scored a season-high 18 points, while Horford delivered a double-double, and played a season-high 35 minutes.
"We've got an idea, obviously, going into the year, and we spend a lot of time thinking about that," Stevens said of how he expects the Celtics to co-exist. "But you don't really know how people are going to complement each other until they play together. And we just haven't had a lot of sample size to figure out, good or bad, if the groups from a rotation standpoint are the most efficient."
Crowder believes this is the deepest Celtics team he's ever played on. So does Thomas. Stevens isn't ready to declare this group the best of his Boston teams anytime soon.
"I'll tell you after 82 games," he said last week.
But the rest of us should know sooner than that. And while the Cavaliers still pose a daunting challenge for anyone seeking a deep playoff run in the East— even Thomas, when I spoke to him during preseason, set a team goal of "the conference finals"—Boston has shown consistent improvement under Stevens' watch. Despite their slow start this season, the Celtics are giving fans every reason to believe that trend will continue.
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