When the Celtics dismantled the Orlando Magic on the road last week with Isaiah Thomas out with a strained groin, you just knew there were going to be some people saying they’re better without Thomas.
Two games later, we can put an end to that foolishness.
No, the Celtics are not better without their best scorer and arguably best fourth-quarter player. The last two losses against the Raptors and the Thunder – both with Thomas still on the sideline – would show that.
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Boston gave up double-digit leads in both of those games and watched as the opposing teams’ superstar took over in the second half. Against the Raptors, it was Kyle Lowry who scored 21 of his 34 points in the second half. Against the Thunder, MVP candidate Russell Westbrook dropped 23 of his 37 points in the second half.
In both games, the Celtics didn’t have enough offensively to match what they were allowing. They didn’t have their go-to guy down the stretch.
Consider that Thomas averages 26 points per game, more than eight more per game than the C’s second-highest average scorer, Avery Bradley, and you can obviously understand what they’re missing.
And we can take it a step further, too.
Nobody in the NBA has gone to the free throw line more and hit more free throws than Thomas in the fourth quarter. He’s 69-for-80 from the line this season in the fourth quarter. For comparison, the player on the Celtics with the second-most free throw attempts in the fourth quarter this season is Marcus Smart… and he’s just 14-for-22.
So while it’s easy to sit there and say, “Wow! Look how much more the ball is moving!” that’s not necessarily always a good thing. Down the stretch, wouldn’t you rather have it in the hands of your best player?
Unfortunately, it sounds like Boston could be without Thomas even longer, including Wednesday’s game in San Antonio. That doesn’t have to mean the game is a lost cause. The Celtics have plenty of youth who can step up in his absence. These three players have shown flashes of their potential:
Marcus Smart – Smart is the team’s sixth man but has stepped in to start in place of Thomas. If you’re a fan of the plus/minus stat, you like what you see. In both losses, Smart was a plus-11 and plus-12, respectively, the only starter to end on the plus side in both games. His defense is superb. But Smart still struggles with his shot. He’s shooting 36.7-percent from the field and 29.0-percent from 3e-point range. That’s not going to cut it.
Terry Rozier – A lot fans were left scratching their heads when Danny Ainge made this pick two years ago, but we’re starting to see what he saw. Rozier’s role has expanded as of late and he’s stepped up in fourth quarters, too. He’s 11-for-18 (61.1-percent) from 3-point range in the fourth quarter this year, putting him first among Celtics regulars.
Jaylen Brown – Brown, a rookie, has seen more time on the court than any C’s rookie in recent history. It’s easy to see why. He’s as athletic as they come and looks to be improving his decision making. Like Smart, Brown was a plus in both recent losses. And get this: He has the highest fourth quarter field goal percentage (21-for-38, 55.3-percent) among C’s guards and small forwards this season.