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Isaiah Thomas and Boston’s Flex Offense VS Washington’s Defense

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Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is good.

Like, really, really good.

For some, this is old news and general common sense, akin to proudly proclaiming that water is wet and the sky is blue. Some things just go without saying.

But up until recently, detractors have cited Thomas’ lack of playoff success and his last place ranking in NBA.com’s Defensive RPM metric as black marks on his breakout 2016-17 campaign. Those same naysayers will mention that other than the “Bad Boys” era Detroit Pistons, no NBA team has managed to seize the Larry O’Brien trophy while featuring a player under 6’2″.

It’s obvious that Thomas will never be mistaken for Chris Paul or Patrick Beverley on the defensive end of the floor, but his offensive talents more than makeup for his deficiencies. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Boston’s pick and roll offense were among the best in the league (along with the Houston Rockets), and Thomas was a huge reason for that.

When a team defends the pick and roll, they can go over the screen or under the screen. If a team does not respect the ball handler’s jump shot, they will go under the screener and force him to shoot. Teams rarely go under on Thomas, out of respect for his 38 percent three-point accuracy. This adds to the headache of neutralizing Thomas and the Boston attack. If a defender goes over the screen, he usually does not have the angle as Thomas gets into the lane and breaks down the defense.

Thomas is blessed with unique offensive skills and Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens does a fantastic job of maximizing his strengths.  Operating the pick and roll action is Thomas’ number one task within the offense, but he is also adept at moving on offense without the basketball. The flex offense that Stevens implements is predicated off of ball movement, screens, motion and misdirection. Boston’s peripheral players do an excellent job of screening, slipping screens, sealing on DHO’s and passing quickly and decisively out of pick and roll action. Bigs, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk, and Jae Crowder can all pass, screen and shoot and guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley utilize their lead guard experience to make quality decisions when handling the ball.

The Washington Wizards feature arguably the NBA’s second best backcourt, in John Wall and Bradley Beal. The antithesis of Thomas, they possess the requisite size, strength and athleticism for their respective positions. If you were to build a guy specifically to give Thomas fits, then Wall and Beal would be pretty close to the prototype.

In the Eastern Conference second round playoff matchup between Boston and Washington, how the Wizards defend Thomas and the Celtics’ pick and roll is key to determining who advances. As you will see, it’s easier said than done.

In Game 1, Washington started hot, scoring the game’s first 16 points. Once the Celtics got their offense going, the Wizards proved they were ill-equipped to counter it.

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Markieff Morris was absolutely lost in Game 1. His ankle injury ended up as a blessing in disguise as he was repeatedly targeted early on in pick and roll action. On this basic set, Olynyk sets a screen and then slips to the three-point line for the easy make. Lack of communication and poor rotations were a common theme for the Wizards in Boston.

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As stated earlier, Stevens loves moving Thomas off the ball. Thomas possesses great quickness and the ability to navigate through crowds, which more times than not, results in a switch from the defense. On this play, Olynyk sets the screen for Thomas as he goes baseline to receive the ball on the weakside. Thomas’ first step is too much for Otto Porter and he penetrates for two.

In the second half of Game 1, Thomas and Horford relentlessly attacked Gortat in the 1-5 pick and roll. In his defense, Gortat usually had the right idea, doing his best to contest and seal the middle. Unfortunately for Gortat, he lacks the lateral quickness and agility to make much of a difference.

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Here, Thomas passes off to Horford who then gives it right back on the DHO, forcing the switch. Gortat maintains the middle, but he is left helpless as Thomas raises up and knocks down the 13-footer. Horford is exceptional in pick and roll action as a screener, passer, roller or shooter.

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Here is a clip of Thomas running pick and roll off of a double high look with Horford and Smart. Wall has to respect Smart and stay with him up high. Thomas elects to go 1-5 (as usual) and forces the switch from Gortat. As Thomas enters the lane, it forces Porter over as he is the only help remaining on the weak side. The outcome is an open Crowder three-point hit. This is an excellent illustration of how Stevens and Thomas use misdirection to confuse the opponent’s defense.

The first four clips were simple concepts deriving from Boston’s flex offense. In Game 2, Stevens and Thomas expanded upon those concepts and added a few wrinkles including more misdirection and multiple screens. Washington, once again, had no answer, resulting in a 53 point effort from Thomas.

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The Wizards have been poor at defending the pick and roll, but on this clip, they’re cognizant of it at the very least. Beal is guarding Thomas up top, while Crowder flashes screen from the left wing. Gortat must stay high as he waits for the trailing Horford. Washington is focused on the screen but Thomas uses the hesitation dribble to get downhill for the easy two.

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Here is another exceptional use of misdirection, from strongside to weakside, by the Boston offense. Horford fakes the DHO to Thomas going left (his preferred route), but then quickly passes to Crowder on the right wing which catches Morris by surprise. Smart’s seal on Porter gives Crowder the lane. Beautiful play design by Stevens.

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This is similar to the off-ball play for Thomas shown in the second video. After passing to Smart, Thomas circles towards the baseline. Coming from the weak side, Thomas receives a flare screen from Horford for the open corner three-pointer. Washington once again exhibits a lack of communication and it costs them.

Even with their multitude of defensive breakdowns, the Wizards were competitive in both games at Boston. As Washington headed home for Game 3, they had no choice other than to improve their team defense and intensity.

Washington installed some of the defensive tactics they showed sparingly in Games 1 and 2. The Wizards started to utilize the weakside defender as a free safety, coming up to disrupt the passing lanes for the screener and ball-handler in the pick and roll action. This essentially allocated three defenders on Thomas.

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For example, here is Thomas guarded by Beal at the end of Game 1. When Horford comes to set the screen, Thomas goes opposite and heads baseline. The play is snuffed out beautifully by Gortat and Beal, while Porter accelerates to cut off the pass.

Other than playing smarter, Washington simply played harder in Game 3. They physically fought through screens, beat screeners to their spots on the floor and contested every Celtic shot attempt at the basket. For the first time this series, Washington came prepared to play playoff basketball.

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On this early Celtics possession, Wall goes under the screen (prompting Thomas to shoot) and Morris actually looks competent for once. Wall knows that Thomas is left-handed, so he immediately raises up to contest and force the errant last-second pass.

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There is nothing complicated or unique about this clip, it simply illustrates Washington’s defensive toughness in Game 3. Look at how Oubre fights through each Olynyk screen, trying to stay with Thomas. This was missing for the Wizards in Games 1 and 2.

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Thomas is on the bench here, but I wanted to show once again how Washington is using its weakside defender to wreak havoc on defense. Porter starts out on Bradley on the weakside but inches his way up towards the rim once he’s switched onto a questionable shooter in Jaylen Brown. In a position where he is able to roam, Porter breaks up the pass from Smart intended for Horford. Great anticipation by Porter.

As the series heads into Game 4 today, Washington must continue to show marked improvement on defense. For Boston, they need a secondary perimeter player to alleviate some of the pressure on Thomas by punishing the Washington defense for cheating off. Crowder and Bradley will be key in that regard, and they must hit open shots as they did in Games 1 and 2 or else the series will be deadlocked at two apiece heading into Wednesday night’s Game 5 back in Boston.

About Patrick Graziosi

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