In the 2012 playoffs, the No. 4 seed Boston Celtics went on an improbable playoff run, coming within one game of the NBA Finals in what would prove to be the last game together for Boston's legendary "Big Three."
Four seasons later, Isaiah Thomas has the opportunity to lead the Celtics on another deep playoff run. But this time, it doesn't seem quite as improbable.
The 2016 Celtics are a very talented team on both ends of the floor. Their 105.7 points per game average ranks No. 5 in the league, while their defensive rating of 103.4 is good for No. 4.
Boston's playoff potential is limitless, and Thomas can lead the way.
The 27-year-old's leap from talented scorer to undoubted NBA All-Star has been nothing short of sensational. His 22.3 points per game ranks No. 13 in the league, and though his 6.3 assists per game isn't an amazing stat, he has shown a Rajon Rondo-esque ability to make timely passes to the open shooter when he needs to:
Thomas isn't a great defender, but fortunately, he doesn't have to be. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart have become two of the NBA's best perimeter defenders, allowing Thomas to excel on offense.
Perhaps Thomas' best performance of the season came last Friday in the team's victory over the Warriors. Bradley's superior defense kept the Celtics in the game, even though Jae Crowder was out and Thomas did not score a single first-half point.
In the second half, Thomas finally started to go toe-to-toe with Steph Curry and picked up Boston's offense:
The first big play of the night for Thomas came at the 2:33 mark in the video. The Warriors were getting back into their offensive rhythm, as Curry was 3-of-3 from downtown in the third quarter and Leandro Barbosa had just hit a jump shot to cut Boston's lead to 65-63.
Thomas crosses half court, sees the Warriors are taking too long to set the defense up and takes advantage of the vacant path to the hoop, drawing a foul from Anderson Varejao for an easy layup and the and-1 opportunity. The play gave Boston a five-point lead and prevented a potentially devastating Warriors run.
In the game's waning seconds, Thomas made a nice cut to the basket, caught the pass and put in the easy layup with 8.3 seconds left to ultimately seal the game.
Of course, the development of that play took a little luck. Smart's inbounds pass was nearly stolen by an aggressive Klay Thompson, which would've been a devastating end to a well-fought game by the Celtics.
But Thomas contributed more to the development than it seems. He was able to shake off Shaun Livingston and get open for Smart's pass. Thompson was forced to make a quick decision: either play aggressively for the ball, or play Thomas and force him to hit a contested shot.
Thompson chose the former, sealing the Warriors' fate. Thomas finished with 22 second-half points, aided by a shoe change at the half:
With five games remaining in the regular season, the Celtics are in great position to win the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference—although this seed will likely be held by the winner in Saturday's matchup between the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks.
Regardless of where the Celtics land in the playoff standings, Thomas will play a pivotal role offensively.
|Isaiah Thomas' Stats vs. Eastern Conference Playoff Teams|
Though the Nos. 3 through 6 seeds are undetermined at this point, the most likely option for the Celtics in the first round appears to be a matchup with the Miami Heat—the team that finally took down the 2012 Celtics.
The new-look Miami roster isn't nearly as potent, but Thomas will still have his hands full defensively with Goran Dragic. Regardless of whether Chris Bosh will be able to return for the playoffs, the Heat rely on their big men to produce on both ends of the floor (with Dwyane Wade as the exception, of course).
Provided Bradley is assigned to cover Wade, Thomas has a major advantage offensively. Per FoxSports.com, Dragic's 106.6 defensive rating is a lowly 38th overall among qualifying guards.
But given Hassan Whiteside's strong presence at center, Thomas will likely rely more heavily on his jump shot to produce his scoring. He'll also have to shake off his unusually poor performances against the Heat this season.
In all likelihood, the Celtics' path to the Eastern Conference Finals would include series against both the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. In both cases, Thomas will need to lead the offense, but through different means.
Cleveland's backcourt isn't exactly known for its defense, and it'll be interesting to see how the Cavs plan to guard Thomas. Kyrie Irving's 107.3 defensive rating is 48th overall among guards, so it's safe to say that he isn't the best candidate to guard Thomas.
Likewise, the Celtics should have Bradley on Irving to quell his offensive threat. This leaves Cleveland with a choice among Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to shoulder the burden of having to track down Thomas all game.
Given this scenario, Thomas should have plenty of opportunities to drive to the hoop for good scoring chances.
Toronto isn't quite as simple. The Raptors boast arguably the East's best backcourt with All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and will provide a major challenge for Thomas.
DeRozan isn't exactly known for his quality defense, but Lowry excels on both ends of the floor. His 103.9 defensive rating ranks No. 15 among guards, and his 21.5 points per game average is only slightly behind Thomas'.
Given DeRozan's superior shooting threat (23.7 points per game; No. 8 overall), it appears that Bradley and Smart will primarily guard him. That leaves a Thomas-Lowry showdown that could very well determine the winner of the series.
All in all, Boston has a very real chance to make some serious noise in the NBA playoffs. No player has a bigger impact on his team's playoff chances than Thomas.
All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.