WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Scott Brooks led the Wizards to their best season since 1979 this year. He’s being thoroughly out-coached by Brad Stevens through two games.
In fairness to Brooks, being out-coached by Stevens is something that happens to most NBA coaches. He’s one of the best tactical coaches in the league, and he might just be better than them all. His ability to make in-game adjustments is what separates him, and it’s a skill that carries extra value in a playoff series where you play the same opponent repeatedly.
Most coaches make major adjustments in between games or at halftime. Stevens makes them on the fly. That can be the difference between winning and losing and it essentially was in Game 2.
The Wizards started on fire again, doing exactly what they should have done from the jump in Game 1 — going after Isaiah Thomas defensively. Before going any further, we must acknowledge that Thomas is remarkable, and his 53-point performance Tuesday night is one of the single greatest playoff performances the league has ever seen.
That’s not hyperbole. It’s the 13th 53-plus-point game in NBA Playoffs history. The other players to do it? Michael Jordan (6x), Allen Iverson (2x), Charles Barkley, Jerry West, John Havlicek and Rick Barry. That’s it. That’s the list.
He put on that performance on his late sister’s 23rd birthday, roughly a week after she died in a car accident and roughly 24 hours after dental surgery to fix his tooth that got knocked out in Game 1. It might be a top-five playoff game ever.
The Wizards could have done far more to prevent it. Thomas needs to be hidden defensively, and when the Wizards starters are on the floor there’s no place for him to do that. The best place is on Otto Porter, but since Porter is a lethal shooter who can fire over Thomas with nearly a one-foot height advantage, the Celtics figured they’d try their luck with Thomas on John Wall.
The Wizards took full advantage in Game 2, posting Wall nearly every trip down the floor. The Celtics helped, the ball swung and the Wizards scored 42 points in the first quarter.
Thomas wasn’t assigned to guard Wall again.
The Wizards never adjusted. In fairness, Washington’s offense is potent and Wall is the engine that drives it. To do anything out of the ordinary — let Wall run pick-and-roll and live with the results — is letting the other team dictate play. The Wizards did score 114 points in regulation. Offense wasn’t exactly the problem.
The problem is the two sides of the floor are related and not sacrificing anything offensively had major repercussions on the defensive end.
After Stevens took Thomas off Wall, “the little guy” (as he’s affectionately called by Tommy Heinsohn on the Celtics’ TV broadcast) was allowed to hang out in the corner with whatever shooter was there. The offense ran through Wall in high-pick-and-roll, with the occasional off-ball screen for Bradley Beal mixed in, and Thomas stood there babysitting Porter, Kelly Oubre or whoever else was standing in the corner conserving energy for the offensive end.
Meanwhile, Wall was dealing with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart’s elite-level defense, then turning around and guarding Thomas on the other end. Possession after possession, the physical toll added up.
Wall had five points in the fourth quarter and overtime to finish with 40. Thomas had 29.
Thomas relentlessly attacked the rim and had fresh legs to nail some major shots from deep. Wall had the energy to do neither.
To put this all on Brooks would be foolish and unfair. Beal has got to get going and help Wall carry some of the offensive load. If he’s not, he should guard Thomas and take that burden off of Wall. Those two can be related, too. If Beal is on Thomas, the Wizards might get that cross-match in transition allowing Beal to get going offensively because Thomas is on him.
Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic, the team’s two major mid-season acquisitions, also combined for a whopping zero points.
However, for Brooks, not making life easier for his stars (especially in the playoffs) was a major knock in Oklahoma City and likely cost him his job there. The coaching help has to come both schematically and by being more flexible in his rotations.
The Wizards offense seems to have more variety than the Thunder’s did, but this is about a lot more than play calling. This is about being relentless in attacking a weakness that would neutralize the other team’s best player. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Attacking Thomas wasn’t broke. The Wizards stopped doing it.
Washington has to make Thomas such a liability defensively that he has to be nothing short of spectacular offensively just to make it worth Stevens keeping him on the floor. Doing so would also tire him out by eliminating his rest on the defensive end.
To me, the solution is clear. Washington should involve him in every single half-court possession.
Thomas is going to be guarding either the point guard, shooting guard or small forward. If he’s on the ball, make him guard a pick-and-roll. If he’s off the ball, make him run off an off-ball screen or defend a post-up.
It doesn’t matter if there is no intention of getting Thomas’s man the ball. The idea is to make him run and run into something, specifically a larger human being. Wall, Beal and Porter are all capable of posting up as well, so the Celtics will have to help, which should lead to open shots for everyone else.
The toll adds up. Just ask Wall. It’s also good offense. Just look at the first quarter.
Thomas is tough as nails and it isn’t guaranteed to work. Nothing is. That’s sports. There are no guarantees. Stevens would also surely adjust in some way, but if the instructions are, “if Thomas is guarding you, find the closest big and run him off a screen,” I’m not sure how many adjustments there are to make. The way to avoid getting screened is to switch, and if the Celtics want to switch Thomas onto Markieff Morris or Gortat, the Wizards will be more than happy to let those guys bury him in the post, catch a post entry pass, turn around and dunk on his head.
Is this going to require doing some things the Wizards haven’t done all year? Yes. Whether that means Oubre is running off screens or Porter is posting up, Washington has to try something different. That’s playoff basketball. Adjust or go home.
Brooks also needs to take a critical look at who is playing and when. Jason Smith was good last night. Oubre was not. Washington has a distinct size advantage in this series. In overtime, as his bigs got in foul trouble, Smith stayed on the bench as Brooks decided to go small. Morris playing center for stretches isn’t a bad idea, but when he’s already played 27 minutes on a bad ankle and picked up five fouls, his effectiveness doing big-man things is going to be limited, to say the least.
Brooks’ biggest downfall in Oklahoma City was untimely injuries, and not having Ian Mahinmi is looming quite massively in this series. However, as a coach, his biggest weaknesses were not making life easy enough for his stars and being stubborn in his rotations. In this series, both are showing again as Stevens coaches a masterpiece, allowing his star to shine as the Wizards’ promising season hangs in the balance.
Craig Hoffman is an on-air personality for 106.7 The Fan. Follow him on Twitter: @CraigHoffman