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Teary-eyed Isaiah Thomas: ‘This should hurt everybody’ 04.29.16 at 12:59 am ET
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After spending 20 minutes with a towel draped over his head in front of his locker, and after emptying his tank for six games, Isaiah Thomas had to get up the energy to walk to the postgame podium. 

He did so with red eyes, the product of emotion and tears following a 104-92 loss to the Hawks in Game 6 that suddenly ended his breakout season and began an offseason of questions. 

“It was 2-2, we went down there and they made an adjustment to try and do whatever they can to stop me and guys continued to play through it, and that’s what I love about this group,” said Thomas, who had a team-leading 25 points on 9-of-24 shooting. “Guys continued to shoot their shot with confidence, it’s just we couldn’t make enough plays. They made more plays than us. There was a game where they went on that third-quarter run, it’s tough to get back into the game, especially against a good team. So, we’ve got to just learn from these battles, knowing that nobody said it was going to be easy, it’s tough to win a series and we know that. It was tough to even win two games. This should hurt everybody, and we will come back next year even stronger.”

For the second straight game, Boston had no answers when the Hawks threw two and three bodies at Thomas, in an effort to force others to pick up the slack. 

But this time, unlike after Game 5, Thomas wasn’t calling out his teammates. He was praising them. 

“Yes, it’s very emotional for me, just because we gave it our all,” Thomas said. ” We never put our head down, like I said, this group of guys is something special. I mean, I played, I gave it my all, so that’s why it hurts that much more. I wish I could have done more, but it just happened to be like that. So it is tough on me, though.”

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Read More: 2016 NBA playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas
Studs and Duds: Celtics eliminated in Game 6 blowout loss to Hawks 04.28.16 at 10:49 pm ET
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Apr 28, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) shoots the ball against Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) and center Al Horford (15) during the first half in game six of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics forward Jae Crowder gets stopped by Hawks bigs Paul Millsap and Al Horford in Thursday’s Game 6. (Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports)

The proverbial rotund female started her song early. With the way the Celtics were playing, she had no other choice. 

After a lackluster Game 5 effort, the C’s found themselves on the brink of elimination. And with their backs against the wall, they shot an abysmal 36.2 percent from the field and were soundly defeated 104-92 by the Hawks. 

Isaiah Thomas finished with a double-double, scoring a game-high 25 points on 9-of-24 shooting while adding 10 assists. Jae Crowder (15 points), Jonas Jerebko (11) and Marcus Smart (11) also finished in double figures. 

Paul Millsap led Atlanta with 17 points, while Al Horford and Kent Bazemore added 15 apiece.

In the first half, the Hawks continued their Game 5 strategy of double-teaming Thomas, and the Celtics did not have a response. Thomas repeatedly made the correct pass, but his teammates were unable to knock down open shots. The C’s were 3-for-18 from 3-point range (27.7 percent).

Despite the Celtics’ shooting woes, the Hawks were unable to pull away, committing nine turnovers in the first two quarters, but the C’s scored only four points with their extra possessions. Still, they stayed within striking distance.

But the Hawks opened the second half on a 15-3 run and never looked back. Toward the end of the third quarter, the Celtics brought some life back to the Garden with an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to 14, but he Hawks responded with seven straight points of their own and entered the fourth quarter with a 21-point lead. The scrappy Celtics did their best to claw their way back in the fourth,  but the lead proved insurmountable, as the C’s were couldn’t get within 10 points.

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Follow Celtics-Hawks Game 6 live 04.28.16 at 7:26 pm ET
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Live Blog Celtics-Hawks Game 6 LIVE
 

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So what exactly are adjustments Brad Stevens makes to free up Isaiah Thomas? 04.28.16 at 7:21 pm ET
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The single-most pivotal moment in this series has surrounded Isaiah Thomas. In Game 3, the Celtics started Evan Turner and had him run the point to free him off screens. 

In Game 5, Mike Budenholzer countered by double and triple-teaming him and frustrating Thomas so much that he called out his own teammates after the 110-83 beatdown. 

What will Brad Stevens do in Game 6?

“You just have to make the right basketball play,” Stevens said before Game 6, repeating some of what he said Wednesday in a conference call. “He’s going to have the ball a ton for us, he’s going to be off the ball on actions for us, he’s going to have to read when he should screen, he’s going to have to read when he gets the ball how he’s being played, and just make the right basketball play. There’s certainly things you can do to alleviate some of that.

“But I felt we attacked it really well at the start of the game. Certainly part of their scoring runs was some bad offense on our part in the latter parts of the game. I left thinking Isaiah made a lot of the right basketball plays. That’s his charge – he has to do that, and we’ll follow suit.

And if they run or “blitz” Thomas?

“The blitz is one thing, but they’ve stayed with Isaiah the whole series,” Stevens added. “He’s been through five games of the first four they were mostly back with Horford, and up with Millsap. They stay with the ball, and we know that they packed the paint against Isaiah in the first four games.

“The one tweak is when they blitz, now the ball is extended, and you have more room once you pass out of it to attack. We just have to make the right read, whether it’s catch and shoot or whether it’s catch and rip and drive. Somebody else gets in the paint and makes the right read, and that’s part of it. We have good players who can do that, I believe they can and Isaiah does too. But Isaiah can’t force. If they’re going to put two to the ball, that’s when you have to make the right basketball play.”

The Hawks’ biggest advantage is their bigs. To keep them from getting the ball is the biggest part of the strategy. 

“Our strategy as a team, and one of our greatest strengths – and it’s enhanced when Avery Bradley is available – is to be able to get into the ball and make it as tough as possible on perimeter players,” Stevens said. “Hopefully, the impact we have on the ball makes it harder to get to the rim. That’s been our philosophy all year. The bigs need to play great position for us. Other than Amir we don’t have a ton of shot blocking. We just have to be good in our position early.”

Read More: 2016 NBA playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens
Isaiah Thomas ‘thumbs up, ready to roll’ for Game 6, no lineup changes for Celtics 04.28.16 at 6:59 pm ET
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Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) shoots the ball past Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0). (Bob DeChiara-USA Today Sports)

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) shoots the ball past Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0). (Bob DeChiara-USA Today Sports)

With the season on the line, Isaiah Thomas is indeed ready to go for Game 6 against the Hawks. 

“He told me on Tuesday night after the game, he sent me a text late in the night that said he’s fine, I saw him again [Wednesday] before we met and in film and on the plane, and he felt fine,” Brad Stevens before Thursday’s Game 6 at the Garden. “No issues with swelling, per se, and today it was just as simple as a non-verbal thumbs up. So he’s fine. He’s good to go; he’s ready to roll.” 

The Celtics will start the same lineup they debuted in Game 3, going with Thomas, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson.

This is the second elimination game Stevens has faced as head coach of the Celtics, losing Game 4 to the Cavaliers last year in the four-game sweep. Stevens said this has a much different feel. 

“I think it’s so different, the series is so different, you’re playing a much-different team that plays much differently,” Stevens said. “Certainly, Cleveland did some things, defensively, that Atlanta is doing, but Atlanta just systematically, on both ends of the floor, is a just a totally separate entity to what Cleveland was at that time, or is now.

“And I think the biggest thing that you take away or, when the guys walk in, they came in, we went through our shootaround. Typical day. The focus is always pretty good. It was good again today. Just ready to compete and excited to play in this building.”

The Celtics did not have a full practice but Stevens is confident his team will be ready mentally and physically for the elimination game. 

“It’s obviously not the second night of a back-to-back, 48 hours later. Both teams traveled [Wednesday], we did a typical light film session and then went on our way,” Stevens said. “Came back together today and got ready for it. When you’re playing a team for the 10th time, the seventh time in the last few weeks, and so a lot like a back-to-back, or maybe not a back-to-back, but you know these guys, they know you. We gotta make small, potentially minor changes.

“At the end of the day, we just have to play better than we did the other day. That’s the thing. The best adjustment we can make: Keep our guy in front of us, challenge shots, and, on the other end, spray the ball around and make them. That’s the way it goes.”

 

 

Read More: 2016 NBA playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens
Can Celtics keep Hawks from running away with Game 6? 04.27.16 at 9:51 pm ET
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Feb 11, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (right) and Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens (left) watch from the sideline in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Atlanta 89-88. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens (left) and Mike Budenholzer (right) are having quite the matchup in the first round. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

There’s been plenty of talk over the last three games about the coaching moves made by Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer. 

There was Stevens changing his lineup and inserting Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner into the starting lineup with great results before Game 3. There was Stevens going with a small lineup that gave the Hawks fits, especially in the fourth quarter of both games in Boston and there were the two timeouts call by Budenholzer with 15 seconds left in regulation of Game 4. He proceeded to watch his point guard dribble out the clock without actually getting a shot up at the rim as the game went to overtime, where the Celtics dominated and tied the series. 

The advantage went back to Budenholzer on Tuesday as his decision to stay with a perimeter was rewarded when the Hawks connected on 14-of-35 shots from beyond the arc. Budenholzer also took a page out of Stevens’ book by going smaller and moving Paul Millsap to center for long stretches of the game. 

But Stevens said in a conference call Wednesday it’s important not to become overly obsessed with turning the game into a chess match. 

“I think that’s what you have to look at. I think that’s what you have to figure out. I think you always start with a mountain-load of information and your desire is to get to basketball in its simplest form,” Stevens said. 

“I’ve shared this quote before, my old boss at Butler used to quote Lincoln when he said, ‘I apologize for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ I think that that’s a coach’s job, is to try to make it as short, simple and sweet as possible and then let guys go out there and play a fast game with a clear mind, and that’s the bottom line, that’s my job and that’s what I’ll stay up thinking about doing. The goal will just be to go out and do our stuff as well as we can.”

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Read More: 2016 NBA playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens on Isaiah Thomas’ call for more help from teammates: ‘You just have to make right basketball play’ 04.27.16 at 5:26 pm ET
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Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) shoots the ball past Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0). (Bob DeChiara-USA Today Sports)

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) shoots the ball past Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) in Game 4. (Bob DeChiara-USA Today Sports)

Brad Stevens can certainly understand the frustration Isaiah Thomas was feeling during the Game 5 loss in Atlanta. 

For just the second time this season, he was held to single-digit scoring. He missed his first five shots and finished just 3-of-12. He faced double and triple-teams all night. Of course, to top it all off, he sprained his left ankle on his final basket of the night. 

After the game, Thomas was vocal about the fact that other teammates are going to have to step up when they’re putting so much emphasis on stopping him. 

On Wednesday, Stevens watched the film and answered some of Isaiah’s concerns from an Xs and Os standpoint. 

“I thought in retrospect, as you go back and watch the film, we handled it really well in those first 18 or 20 minutes,” Stevens said. “We had our opportunities and at the end of the day, you have to take advantage of as many of them as you can, realizing you are not going to play a perfect game. You got to continue to be aggressive passing out of it and guys have to continue to be aggressive driving and playing and making plays for others out of it.

“There are certain things we’ll look to do should they decide to stay with that. I think obviously they did a good job and their energy level was really good. They just executed what they wanted to do really, really well last night. I’m talking about Atlanta here. I think that Isaiah has been trapped before. He’s been trapped quite a bit. I thought yesterday his reads at the start of the game were really good.”

What hurt the Celtics was the same thing that has hurt them all season. When Isaiah Thomas hasn’t scored they’ve struggled to find a consistent second scoring option. Some nights it’s Jae Crowder, some nights Evan Turner and some nights Jared Sullinger. But none of those three require a full game plan to stop. Thomas does. 

“You just have to make the right basketball play and he’s got good teammates around him who have had great years,” Stevens continued. “We didn’t shoot it as well as we would have liked last night but I believe in each one of those guys, as does Isaiah.

When the Celtics weren’t struggling on offense, they were having trouble finding the open shooter on the perimeter again, especially in the third quarter, when Atlanta converted five of their 14 3-pointers on the night, scoring 42 points in the process. 

“I think transition was the biggest thing and then we had some positions where we probably over-rotated a few times in the half court,” Stevens said. 

The Celtics’ zone defense has had its moments when it’s been very effective in matching up against Atlanta’s sharp-shooters. Then there were times like last night where it failed them. Stevens, during his conference call Wednesday, made it sound like the zone is still a gimmick in the Celtics defensive playbook. 

“We don’t spend a lot of time on it. We practice it very, very little,” Stevens said. “Obviously, [Tuesday] night, they had a couple of baskets against it. The first one I felt like was handled [well] and got a shot you’d look for, which was a 10-foot contested floater. The second time we didn’t get to [Kent] Bazemore, but the other day it was great to us. Maybe it was Game 3 at home, where they went scoreless against it. Sometime it’s very productive, sometimes it’s not. But we’re not going to spend a lot of time on it since we don’t play it a lot.”

Read More: 2016 NBA playoffs, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas
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