NBA

Isaiah Thomas should never be doubted

Jay Asser 4/05/2017
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All heart: Isaiah Thomas. Picture: Getty Images.

Shattering glass ceilings has become Isaiah Thomas’ M.O., so anything he does at this point should come as no surprise. And yet, the pint-sized dynamo continues to stretch our wildest imaginations, scaling the loftiest bars and defying the most unconventional of conventional wisdom.

It’s truly difficult to come up with new words to describe what Thomas is doing right now, because it feels like we’ve used up most of the English language to capture his previous feats.

His performance in the Boston Celtics’ Game 2 victory over the Washington Wizards was the stuff of legend, not just in the context of the sport’s greatest franchise, but in the context of NBA history.

Thomas didn’t just score 53 points, he scored 53 points with the Celtics needing every bit of it to outlast Washington and, most remarkable of all, did it on what would have been his late sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday.

What Thomas must be going through on a personal level is unfathomable, and yet somehow, someway, he’s managed to play what is essentially just a game with the focus and desire of someone treating it as his only priority.

It’s impossible to use other examples to compare Thomas’ situation to, but his 53 points on their own say plenty.

Only eight other men have ever scored that many in a playoff game. Those names? Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Rick Barry and John Havlicek. That’s not just good company, that’s superstar, Hall of Fame company.

Superstardom is the level Thomas has been kept out of, like a bouncer standing behind a velvet rope giving you the feeling that you’re not good enough to get in. He’s exceeded expectations enough to be universally considered a star, but even during his breakout campaign this season, the murmurs were there. Could Thomas do it in the playoffs? Do the Celtics still need a true go-to scorer and first option? How much of a liability will his size, and in turn his defence, really be when it matters most?

Those questions remain mostly unsolved. One game – and make no mistake, what Thomas did in Game 2 broke new ground for him – cannot and does not change everything. If it wasn’t already the case though, it’s certainly now time to stop thinking of what he can’t do.

His ascension will inevitably hit a peak. Maybe it already has. But after everything Thomas has accomplished and the way he’s done it, are you willing to bet against him? Didn’t think so.

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NBA

Spurs' adjustments for Game 2 are obvious

Jay Asser 3/05/2017
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Missing piece: LaMarcus Aldridge. Picture: Getty Images.

Somewhat surprisingly, the oft-prickly Gregg Popovich was in a joking mood after his San Antonio Spurs suffered the worst series-opening loss of his tenure.

Maybe it was Popovich taking solace in the idea that the rest of the series can’t go much worse for San Antonio than it did in the 126-99 blowout on Monday.

Or perhaps it was the effect of a man being resigned to the notion that if the opposition shoots as well as Houston did in the opener, there’s almost nothing you can do.

Considering Popovich, his demeanour could have been unrelated to the game altogether. Yet for as grim of a loss as the Spurs endured, the adjustments for San Antonio are clear heading into Game 2 tonight.

The Rockets’ 3-point shooting isn’t a fluke, but even for the most triple-happy team in the league, their Game 1 performance was an aberration. Houston connected on 22-of-50 3-pointers, tying their postseason franchise record and recording the second-most by any team in a playoff game.

While the Spurs’ defence appeared to be their most significant issue on paper, it was the other end of the court that set up Houston’s attack.

San Antonio’s offence attempted to match the Rockets’ up-tempo pace and beat them in a shootout, going against their nature. The Spurs are comfortable featuring a deliberate attack, as evidenced by their pace (possessions per game) of 88.16 in the first round against Memphis and 96.41 in the regular season, which was fourth-lowest in the league. As a result, San Antonio liberally fired away shots that led to Houston getting out in transition and scoring 27 fast break points.

“We disobeyed a lot of basic basketball rules that they could take advantage of,” Popovich said. “If we’re going to shoot quickly and shoot poorly, it’s going to be a fast-break deal all night long, and they were better at that than we are. So we’ve got to play a lot smarter than what we saw tonight.”

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What was also evident in Game 1 is the Spurs’ need for LaMarcus Aldridge to play a larger factor.

The forward finished the opener an astronomical minus-36 in just 25 minutes, providing little to nothing on both ends of the floor.

When Aldridge was the primary defender, Houston players scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc. Particularly when he was matched up against Ryan Anderson, Aldridge was slow on rotations when the ball found the Rockets’ sharpshooter on the
perimeter, yielding open 3s.

Aldridge’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 122.3, and yet his offence was somehow worse.

He contributed 4 points on 2-of-7 shooting and had a team-worst offensive rating of just 62.3 as he failed to take advantage of his size mismatch or make plays out of double-teams.

“I definitely have to help out Kawhi,” Aldridge said. “He did his part tonight. I have to take my time down there and make them pay.

“Once we started missing easy shots, I think after that, we all just tried to start searching and started playing too fast. We just kind of got frantic.”

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Jazz need Hayward to close the gap in match-up with Durant

Jay Asser 2/05/2017
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Poised for success: Gordon Hayward. Picture: Getty Images.

Gordon Hayward’s star has been on the rise for a while now, but with the often-overlooked Utah Jazz now in the playoffs, the swingman has a stage to show just how good he is.

Is Hayward good enough to give the Jazz any hope of upsetting the Golden State Warriors though? That’s the tall order facing the 27-year-old as Utah begin their second round series against the overwhelming title favourites tonight.

Hayward was fantastic in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers and flashed an efficient offensive game, averaging 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 46.9 per cent shooting, including 44.7 per cent from long range.

The Warriors, of course, are at a different level than the Clippers defensively and have given Hayward plenty of trouble recently. In his lone appearance against Golden State this season, Hayward managed just 6 points on 2-of-10 shooting. One game hardly makes a sufficient sample size, but even looking at Utah’s four meetings with the Warriors last season, Hayward shot just 33.3 per cent to average 17.3 points.

Much of those struggles, however, have been of Hayward’s own doing, with him converting 14-of-45 (31.1 per cent) uncontested shots in his past five games against Golden States. For comparison, Hayward shot 43.9 per cent on uncontested looks in 2015-16 and 49.4 per cent this season.

Aside from making open shots, Hayward will have his work cut out off the ball to find those clean looks as Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are expected to shadow him. Both players are long, rangy and athletic enough to make life difficult for any offence’s top option, but Hayward will at least be somewhat prepared after dealing with a similar body type and defender in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the previous round.

The Warriors would prefer not to use Durant on Hayward full-time to allow their own time to conserve his energy for offence. But when the two are matched up, Hayward has to make Durant work by running him through a maze of screens (granted it doesn’t draw a switch) and do his best to attack him with the ball without settling for tough shots. It’s a lot to put to Hayward’s shoulders, without even mentioning the test he’s in for on the other end when the match-up pits Durant on offence.

VERDICT

There’s no question the Warriors hold advantages at nearly every position against Utah, but if Hayward can play the duel with Durant closer to a draw than an outright loss, the Jazz have the potential to steal a game or even two.

Winning the series? That’s a whole different matter.

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