Isaiah Thomas could be in for a playing time increase come the playoffs. (Jason Getz/USA Today Sports)
When Brad Stevens steps on the gas in the playoffs, will Isaiah Thomas be ready to fire up the Celtics engine?
For the Celtics to have any prayer of fulfilling the promise made by the Celtics point guard before Wednesday’s regular season finale, Thomas will have to be ready to answer the bell, even if it means playing more minutes than his team-leading 34 minutes-per game average.
Thomas entered Wednesday’s game ranked 27th in the NBA in minutes played. There are certainly others like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden who rank at the top of the league. But with Thomas, there is the unknown of playoff wear and tear.
The Celtics, after all, are still looking for their first playoff series win with Thomas at the point. Two years ago, the Celtics were swept by the Cavaliers in the opening round. Last year, the Celtics won a pair of games but fell in six to the Hawks in the first round. Thomas was acquired at the trade deadline in February 2015 and the Celtics have been in the playoffs ever since.
“I don’t know that it changed the attitude. I think that that’s something we were starting to find a stride about us right before the All-Star break that year,” coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday. “Isaiah was a huge addition from the standpoint of he brought something to the table that we needed badly and that complemented the rest of our players. I think that he fit in with his chip on his shoulder and his desire to prove people wrong and be great. But I don’t know that he changed it, per se. We were headed in the right direction and then this was a big part of it. He’s been a huge part of it, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a collective effort. All of our guys have that mindset.”
Now the mindset is getting deep in the playoffs and that could mean asking more from Thomas and others.
“Nobody’s played more than 34 minutes a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah is on 75 games. Everybody else is less than that. We feel really good about our total minutes, our minutes per game and where we are heading into the playoffs, from a preparation standpoint and from a load standpoint thus far.
“I said the other day that the silver lining of the injuries we went through was everybody sat. Avery missed almost two months, Al missed 15 games, Jae missed 10 games. We’ve had a good number of games missed due to that. And as a result, we feel like it’s more important to play right now and continue to play together.”
After Thomas at 34.0 minutes per game, there’s Avery Bradley at 33.4, Jae Crowder (32.5), Al Horford (32.4) and Marcus Smart (30.4).
“The minutes per game is a conscious effort,” Stevens added. “That’s a long-term thing that you’re trying to manage within in a game. That’s hard to do. Very rarely did those guys get into the high-30s or low-40s. There may be a case or two where they got into the low-40s. [Minutes management] is what we try to do. Hopefully it’s of benefit. We’ll see.
“I’d say you’d probably be more likely to play more minutes when those times come. I trust everybody that’s available.”
Stevens is at the point where he and his staff feel pretty comfortable with which rotations might be used off the bench, starting with Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown.
“Yeah, but some of that stuff will be dependent on who you’re playing, how they’re playing, adjustments that both teams make throughout the series and those type of things,” Stevens said. “I feel good about us being able to go to a number of different people within those series.
“Obviously, number one is availability. Number two is I’d say we’ve made some good strides with certain groups on the floor. I feel good about knowing our guys and knowing how they complement each other and what each guy brings to the table, the value they can add to help us win as we move forward. You feel like you’ve got a pretty comprehensive review of all that as you head into the last game and then next week.”
Stevens said his team is ready to embrace the role of the top seed in the East, even though he admitted that the Cavaliers are still the team to beat.
“I don’t put a lot of time and thought into it,” Stevens said. “I’m excited about progress from the standpoint that we’ve been consistent in our approach and we haven’t gotten too high or too low with regard to long losing streaks or things don’t go our way and not being able to respond. I think most good team are that way. Our first-round opponent is going to be hard, regardless. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. My focus isn’t going to be on the numbers next to the names, it’s going to be on how you have to play to beat whoever you’re playing.”