Isaiah Thomas didn’t exactly have his best playoff performance in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. As the Cleveland Cavaliers led for the entire night Wednesday and stormed to a 117-104 win, Thomas finished with 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting, unsurprisingly paling in comparison to the nonchalant 38 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals and 14-of-24 shooting of LeBron James.
Game 1 didn’t look like a fair fight, as will likely be the case for most of the series. A key part of that was how the Cavs defended Thomas, holding him well below his playoff average of 25.4 points per game this year and rattling him with the kind of pressure and forced turnovers (four, to be exact) that will be key to them stopping the Celtics altogether.
Thomas is the engine that makes their offense go. And while they haven’t been as useless scoring without him in the playoffs (110.7 points per 100 possessions with him and 111.2 without him — you can read more on that here) and the Celtics’ 15-4 run to end the third quarter came without Thomas, the Cavs still did what they needed to defensively to open the series strong.
The Cavs’ strategy, as with previous contests against the Celtics, was immediate right out of the gate: They weren’t going to give Thomas space to attack and they were going to trap. Similarly to their tactics in the second round against the Toronto Raptors, trapping Kyle Lowry a little and, primarily, trapping DeMar DeRozan, the Cavs aimed to disrupt the play of the Raptors’ stars and force others to step up. Which, against Thomas and the Celtics, makes a lot of sense, even with the playmaking they have around the roster and at center with Al Horford.
The Cavs didn’t hang around to get started. On the Celtics’ first possession Thomas attempted to drive past Kyrie Irving along the baseline after a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson, only to be met by the 6-foot-10 Kevin Love in the corner. As Love and Irving used their superior size to smother Thomas and remove any openings for a pass, they soon came away with a steal:
This quick trap in the second quarter rattled Thomas again. Rather than being stuck this time without his dribble, Thomas was again met by Love to apply more pressure after the initial defender, Iman Shumpert, was caught on a screen from Horford. Thomas tried to turn the play around by dishing the ball inside, ideally into more space after Love came up to trap. However, Irving knew where he needed to be to help for Love and made a smart play, coming into the lane and breaking up the pass to give the Cavs another steal:
When the Cavs can take away the threat of Thomas scoring like this and cut off passes to others, their defense gives them exactly what they need to make this series even easier.
They showed other strengths in Game 1, too. The Cavs have a host of size with LeBron at small forward and Love and Tristan Thompson filling out the frontcourt to contest the 5-9 Thomas at the rim.
These are the kind of jaw-dropping, size-defying layups that Thomas made so often in the regular season that amazed us all the time; he won’t always miss against Cleveland. But the point is that things won’t be easy when he has to worry about LeBron waiting inside and the contest of a fairly springy Thompson to hoist the ball over:
No matter how much better the Cavs are on offense than defense, they have stepped up their game in the playoffs and plan to focus on containing Thomas.
When LeBron switches to power forward and the Cavs get a little smaller and more agile, his defense can be a nightmare for the Celtics. There aren’t many mismatches to seek out for Boston’s guards this way, unlike a lineup featuring, let’s say, Love and Channing Frye (who only played three minutes in Game 1).
Here, LeBron simply picked up Thomas as the Celtics brought the ball up quickly in transition, destroying Thomas with vastly superior size (as you’d expect) before forcing an incredibly awkward layup attempt and travel call:
Another benefit of the Cavs’ size is that Thompson is agile enough to switch onto smaller guys outside and hold them at bay, at least some of the time. Thompson switched onto Thomas in transition on this play and stayed with him to see out the possession, shifting his feet back well to prevent a drive, force a 3-pointer and then contest:
Whether it’s evading trapping, LeBron or anything else the Cavs use, Thomas will need to adjust going forward to be the high volume (and high efficiency) scoring presence the Celtics need him to be.
Not everything was doom and gloom for Thomas in Game 1, though. He did record 10 assists, making a more plays out of pick-and-rolls and traps later in the game.
Here, Thomas had a ton of attention on him from a pick-and-roll with Horford as Thompson guarded the paint and Irving stuck close by to cover a possible pass back to Horford. As Avery Bradley cut baseline and Thomas stormed the paint, LeBron sunk back to help, all of which left Jae Crowder wide open for a 3 as Thompson was too far away to switch and close out:
The following assist to Horford was a perfect example of the kind of looks the Celtics can create when Thomas passes out of traps, and how good a passer Horford is on the move, showing his swivelling passes in the lane and recognition of where his teammates are.
As Thompson came up high to stop Thomas getting anywhere, the paint was left open. The point guard made the easy, swift read by sending the ball to Horford in the lane, prompting J.R. Smith to help on the roll to the basket and sending LeBron away from Crowder to cover Bradley in the corner, too. Crowder soon had a ton of space for a 3-pointer as his teammates swung the ball.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, that shot made them 3-of-17 on 3s by this point of the game. Finishing 12-of-38 (31.6 percent) was never a recipe for success.
Cool 3-point shooting and these assists from Thomas weren’t nearly enough to keep up with LeBron, Love (a playoff career-high 32 points) and the Cavs, even on a night when Irving only had 11 points on 11 shots. But for the Celtics to stay as close as possible, they’ll need Thomas tearing things up out of traffic and those around him hitting at all cylinders. And 30 or 40 points from Thomas himself would be nice, too.
The optimistic takeaway (if there is one) from this game for the Celtics and their fans is that openings from the Cavs’ pressure on Isaiah Thomas can create opportunities for others. If Thomas adjusts and finds more of a rhythm as the series goes on, specifically finding more comfort in where he can pick and hit shots, then the Celtics’ offense is in better shape.
The problem is that regardless of any adjustments from Thomas, and no matter how many shots his teammates hit, they still don’t have enough to keep up with LeBron and a Cavs team with this much shooting and talent. And that’s before even considering defense and how Thomas was attacked in Game 1.
Perhaps the Celtics can find a way to make things more interesting in Game 2, but fans should not hold their breath.