Isaiah Thomas spoke out about the coaching staff’s decision to play James Young and Jordan Mickey in the third quarter of a loss to the Clippers
Isaiah Thomas wasn’t happy about the Boston Celtics’ loss to the L.A Clippers on Monday night. Nor should he have been. It was the team’s second in a string of disheartening defeats, marked by intermittently sloppy and uninspiring play. He spread the blame around, indicating his disappointment with himself, his teammates, and his coaches. That’s a safe play, and likely a wise move, but he didn’t hedge his bets entirely.
Thomas shared his disdain with the team’s level of experimentation, without much clarity about exactly what he meant by it. The natural conclusion (and one that he did not refute) to be drawn is that he was displeased with some of coach Brad Stevens’ lineup decisions, which were admittedly unconventional.
His hands were tied a bit by injuries, but it would appear Thomas prefer Stevens’ response be to shorten his bench to account for missing minutes, rather than empty it. There is some validity to that notion. Boston certainly would have had a better chance to win the game had they simply bumped up the minutes of their remaining rotation players, and avoided the so-called experimenting that ensued.
Pushing all your chips into the middle of the table to win a single regular season game is an approach based in a fairly myopic NBA-worldview though. Stevens’ wonky lineups were the direct result of injuries to Al Horford and Jonas Jerebko. He was right not to risk adding to that list by overextending anyone to make up for their absence.
Reducing the wear and tear on his best players in the present will have direct benefits in the future. That’s not experimenting. It’s smart coaching. And that’s not all. Even if Stevens was simply experimenting for experimentations sake, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
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The regular season is an opportunity to test things out while the stakes are low. It takes every bit of talent, dedication, and guile to beat a team and player as good as the Cavaliers and Lebron James. Experimenting with non-traditional lineups in the regular season is the only way to know if something truly off the wall might be worth giving a shot in the postseason.
Ideally Boston would be able to figure that out AND continue winning games, but sometimes a regular season loss is the price you pay for seeing what you got. Thomas’ biggest frustration seemed to be that it happened so late in the season. As if experimentation is only appropriate in the season’s early months. That’s a line of thinking that fails to account for a number of other important contextual factors.
Stevens knew he was playing a good team on the road without two key players. He knew he had a shooting guard recovering from an achilles injury and a roster that has only been at full strength for a number of games. He wanted to ensure the long-term health of his players, and he used that as an opportunity to see how far he could push the limits of the Celtics’ small ball capabilities.
In the best case scenario, he would have found something promising, won the game, and moved on with everyone in good condition. Instead he got worst case. The lineups got a little too weird, the Clippers caught fire, and the Celtics took a loss.
In that sense, Thomas’ frustration is totally valid. He watched his team blow a big lead, and is right in assessing that there were other substitution patterns that may have kept that from happening. That’s not a pleasant experience, and his reaction was an indication of a desire, if not an expectation, that his team win every game. That’s exactly the mindset you want from your star player.
A competitive disposition isn’t necessarily correlated with taking the long view though. Stevens played this correctly, even if the end result was an undesirable one. Thomas was right to be upset, but he was off in his assessment of the place of experimentation.