Isaiah Thomas will be out again as the Celtics search for a way to defeat the Spurs
The Boston Celtics have hit a bit of a rough patch during Isaiah Thomas‘ absence, and things will not be getting any easier against the San Antonio Spurs. Their lone victory without Thomas came against the Magic, but they suffered close loses to the Raptors, Rockets and the Thunder. The Celtics also suffered a close close just before that to the Spurs, but Thomas was in the lineup.
The Celtics have been happy that they are giving themselves a chance without Thomas, but their inability to close games down the stretch has killed them, and doing either of those tasks will be even more difficult against the Spurs.
This is also the matchup when the Celtics needed Thomas the most. It is one thing to get offense without him against the Rockets or the Thunder, it is a completely different story to try and find that rhythm against the Spurs, who continue to be a defensive juggernaught. Both Al Horford and Marcus Smart have done a solid job of generating ball movement with the starting unit and without Thomas there to manufacture points, they depend on that ball movement even more.
The Celtics know that they will need to play as a unit and they need every player on that starting roster to find a way to contribute on the offensive end. It would have needed to be a collective effort even with Thomas player, and now they will have to take it to another level.
The second unit, which has been another bright spot in Thomas’ absence, will also be facing their most difficult challenge. The Spurs always play deep and have a bench that could exploit the youth of the Celtics. The Spurs will not be too worried preparing for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, but they need to find a way to get an edge.
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Tonigth would be the perfect time for Kelly Olynyk to finally find his shooting stroke. The Celtics need a boost from that second unit and they need multiple different players to score points in bunches. Olynyk still is arguably the best three point shooter on the team and if he can prove that tonight, then the second unit could give the Celtics a bit of an edge.
Both the Celtics and the Spurs rank in the top four in assist to turnover ratio in the NBA, and that battle cannot be lost by the Celtics. The Celtics need to be able to match the Spurs’ disruptiveness on defense and make sure they are winning in transition with steals, and they need to make sure the ball keeps moving. Even if the Celtics are able to generate turnovers and getting running in transition, that will not be enough to score on the Spurs if their half court defense is leaving the Celtics helpless.
The Celtics simply cannot expect to outplay the Spurs solely in the half court. Kawhi Leonard alone could be too much on either end. Jae Crowder will get one of the toughest assignments in the NBA and Smart may get some time on him too. Leonard has become their go to scorer, but they cannot put too much effort into stopping him. The Celtics will use help but the Spurs play too well as a team, and they will exploit any holes created by over compensating on Leonard.
The Celtics should be able to feel comfortable about Horford on LaMarcus Aldridge. That deadly mid range shot will pull him out of the paint but Horford needs to be able to defend him without help, and he has done a great job on the perimeter this season. Horford has always been a fluid athlete and asking him to defend in the mid range game is really not a concern at this point.
The Celtics need to contain Leonard and that falls on Crowder, but this game has to be played as a team. If the Celtics have a weakness on the court, then they need to know what they need to do to make up for it, because the Spurs will certainly know how to attack it.
On offense, the Celtics will also have to work for each and every point, and they need to find multiple ways to generate easy buckets. Anything in the half court will be hard to come by and they do not have the shooters to expect great success in the half court. If their defense can step up and slow down the Spurs, then they will have an opportunity to get the extra boost they need in transition.
Of course, rebounding will also be a concern. It is unrealistic to expect the Celtics to win because of rebounding, but that is yet another way for the Spurs to try and win the game. Second chance points will be even more detrimental against the Spurs and if they have a big day in that area, it is hard to imagine the Celtics overcoming it.
The Celtics are going through the toughest stretch of their schedule so far, making it awful timing for Thomas to be hurt. They have managed to steadily stay above .500 throughout all their injuries, but losing another one here will put them in one of their worst ruts of the season.
With another opportunity at a signature victory against a top team in the league, the Celtics need either a complete flop from the Spurs (which, after Popovich called them out, is highly unlikely), or they will need the best collective effort of the season to get a victory.