Two closes loses is a tough pill to swallow but the Boston Celtics are growing in Thomas’ absence
The Boston Celtics have been interesting to gauge since Isaiah Thomas went down with an injury. They have suffered two loses to just one win, but a complete blowout of the Magic followed by tight games against the Raptors and the Thunder suggests they may be playing better than that record would indicate.
While it would be more than absurd to think the Celtics could be better without Thomas in the lineup, there is a case to be made that his absence is showing them all the things that Thomas does in order to cover up shortcomings. Without Thomas in the lineup, the rest of the team is forced to make up for their issues, and it has created a great balance between the players on both ends of the court.
The Celtics have always flourished with ball movement this year but Thomas has been the only player they can look to when things really are not going well. Thomas was the guy that bailed them out and closed the game in clutch situations. Unfortunately, the Celtics still have not figured out those clutch situations without Thomas, but the fact that they continue to play well against strong opponents is a great testament to the collective effort of the team.
Even Stevens is exercising all options. The starting lineup has been shuffling and the in game lineups continue to be all over the place. Stevens is trying to find the combinations that will get the best out of his players, and all this extra work in Thomas’ absence will surely benefit them in the long run.
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The second unit is currently a great example of how the team can improve with these kinds of injuries. At the beginning of the season, the Celtics were without Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, and that gutted their second unit strength. The Celtics have always leaned heavily on getting an advantage from their bench, and they were being abused early on in the season, blowing leads to bad teams and never getting an advantage against anyone.
Both Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown were thrust into roles that they were clearly not prepared for, and despite momentary flashes of greatness, they were not able to sustain the team on either end. They were wild and inconsistent and the Celtics could not trust them to give the team a boost. They never truly could find their form with those initial injuries, and it had many questioning whether or not the Celtics would ever get that boost from the second unit.
Now, things look completely different, and that has been going on since before the Thomas injury. Not only is the second unit now avoiding becoming a great liability, but they are giving them a district boost, and in that blowout against the Magic, they were the highlight of the game.
Brown is establishing a greater level of consistency and is avoiding some of the wild and out of control plays that lead to a lot of mistakes. Rozier is doing a better job attacking the rim, and his distribution has been phenomenal. Their numbers still are nothing to get too excited about, but their control and comfort on the court has drastically improved, and from that the numbers will gradually follow.
With Thomas out of the lineup, Smart is back with the starters, and the second unit is in a similar situation t the beginning of the year. They have Olynyk now, but he is yet to have the great impact that was expected this year. The way both Brown and Rozier have played in Thomas’ absence is a testament to that balance that is being discovered without Thomas. They are realizing that they have other options when they need to be bailed out or when they need a spark, and the second unit is one way Thomas’ life should be much more comfortable once he returns to the lineup.
This new great glance is not restricted to just the second unit finally providing that great spark. The Celtics lost their leading assist man, but that has not slowed down their ball movement. Prior to the injury, Thomas and Al Horford were the only players who consistently had an impact with their distributions. Smart has had plenty of moments where he has looked like a solid distributor, but it has only been in Thomas’ absence that he is giving the Celtics the confidence they need in order to consistent have him running the offense as a dsitributor.
Smart is averaging a career high 4.2 assists per game this season, but in these last two close loses, he has blown that away with nine assists against the thunder and five against the Raptors. It is still hard to trust Smart as their main distributor, but this is one of the areas he needed to improve in this season.
Just as Brown and Rozier’s role benefited from initial injuries, Smart will benefit from this added role in Thomas’ absence. Once Smart returns to the second unit he will be much more comfortable with that kind of role, and will further reinforce the lineup balance that the Celtics have been looking for this season. With the growth of Rozier and now Smart, the second unit could be transformed offensively.
The Celtics will not be getting another go to player quite like Thomas, but such a young team needed to dissever a lot about their options. These young players are far from finished products, but they have all have distinct development this season, and they are getting ready to finally be at their best and reach their potential once Christmas day passes and the playoff run intensifies.
The Celtics can take solace in the fact that these injuries and inconsistent play has not put them further than one game back of the third seed in the East. There is no denying that they have not been as good as expected, but they have improved throughout the season and they continue to trend in the direction of finding the lineup balance that they need to truly contend in the East.