Beyond The Numbers: Late-game production is key to C's, Raptors success

Beyond The Numbers: Late-game production is key to C's, Raptors success

When it comes to late-game production, tonight's battle between two of the NBA's best in that regard -- Boston and Toronto --is about as good a matchup as you’ll find. 
 
Both teams rank among the best in the NBA, and are separated by just one game record-wise. And one of the keys to both team’s success is their ability to produce in the fourth quarter. 

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In fact, the Celtics and Raptors are the top two teams in the NBA when it comes to scoring in the fourth quarter.
 
Boston averages a league-best 29.4 points per game in the fourth, while Toronto is right on its heels with a 28.4 points per game average in the fourth. 
 
And within those numbers you’ll find Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 9.5 fourth-quarter points per game . . . which trails only Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (9.7).
 
“He’s the best player in the NBA in the fourth quarter,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said of Thomas. “He’s proven that. Your high beams better be on when you’re going into the fourth against Thomas. He’s an example  of what this league should be about. Kid drafted, what 60th? Back against the wall his whole career; now look at him. He’s one of the best players in this league,  a lot like Kyle [Lowry]. Those two guys should be what our league is about. It’s not about where you’re drafted, it’s where you are now, where you propelled yourself to be. They have propelled themselves to be in the elite level of our league. Because of hard work and not looking at  . . . almost living with a chip on their shoulder. That’s what has made them what they are.”
 
Lowry acknowledges he likes what he sees when watching Thomas play. 
 
“He’s unbelievable,” said Lowry who ranks third in the NBA with 7.8 fourth-quarter points. “I’m a big fan of his. Watching him now a couple years, he’s growing into the confident player that he is. I think he’s averaging 9.3 in the fourth quarter? (It’s actually 9.5.) That’s big stuff. I would say the other word (besides stuff) but you have to write this. He’s just becoming such a vital player to his team. He’s been a vital player overall in what they do. You gotta find a way to stop him and slow him down.”
 
Lowry has left many teams feeling that way about him, especially the Celtics. In their last matchup, Lowry finished with a then-season high of 34 points, which included five of the Raptors’ last six points as they escaped with a 101-94 win. 
 
While there’s no doubt that Thomas and Lowry lead the way when it comes to fourth-quarter play, the contributions they get from their teammates are just as vital. 
 
Both teams are making 9.8 field goals in the fourth, which is more than any other team. And they’re doing so at a fairly high rate, with the Celtics making 47 percent of its fourth quarter shots compared to 47.6 for Toronto. Boston ranks fourth in the league in that category while the Raptors are No. 2 at 47.6.
 
Both teams rank high in other categories as well when you start examining their play in the fourth quarter. 
 
As important as it may be to statistically be among the best in various categories, the bottom line to all this is winning games. And that's something both teams have done a good bit of this season, in part because of how well they were able to close out games in the fourth quarter. 

Celtics stay laid back, but 'intentional' in preparation for Game 4

Celtics stay laid back, but 'intentional' in preparation for Game 4

CHICAGO – The mood was significantly lighter at the end of the Boston Celtics’ practice on Saturday at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. 

At one end of the floor, players were playfully jacking up 3’s. At the other end of the floor, some were working on ball-handling or mid-range jumpers. 

And then there was Kelly Olynyk draining shots from half court. 

But as jovial as they were on Saturday, players understand there is still a lot of work to do in order for them achieve their primary goal which is to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

Boston’s 104-87 Game 3 win over the Bulls cut Chicago’s lead to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. A Celtics' win in Game 4 would not only tie the series at two games apiece, but also re-establish home court advantage for the top-seeded Celtics.

“We’re going to have to play with great purpose, be intentional in the way we approach (Game 4),” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “We know it’s gonna be really hard. Each game is its own entity.”

He’s right. 

Games 1 and 2, both won by Chicago, were about the Bulls’ supporting cast led by Robin Lopez. 

And in Game 3, Boston’s small-ball lineup dominated play in leading Boston to its first win in the series. 

Despite Boston’s impressive showing in Game 3 which included a playoff franchise-record 17 made 3’s, Stevens – like most coaches – sees plenty of room for improvement heading into Game 4. 

“I thought we could have done some things a little better on offense,” Stevens said. “Defensively, they put us in some tough positions, missed some shots. We have to be better in some of our defensive stuff. We’re going to have to play better.”

And that maybe more than anything else, is what makes Boston’s Game 3 win so sweet. 

They led most of the game and won by a sizable margin, but clearly did not play their best game. 

Chicago has out-rebounded Boston in each of the first three games by an average of 12.3 per game. 

And the Celtics endured a miserable second quarter scoring drought, scoring just seven points in the final 11:17 of the quarter.

But the goal in Game 3 was very simple: win by any means necessary. 

“Certainly, better to be down 2-1 than 3-0,” Stevens said.

But the Celtics have to maintain the same sense of urgency on Sunday, that they played with in Game 3.

“The vibe for me is the same,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “I knew we’d come here, play hard and get a win. It’s always good to be back on the winning side. I feel we need to have the same mentality when we were down two. Otherwise we’ll be down 3-1 if we don’t have the same mentality.” 

Bradley knows all too well that there have been times this season when the Celtics would play well and come away with a marquee win, only to get seemingly fat and happy afterwards and suffer a loss rather than build off the momentum of an impressive win. 

The playoffs are a different kind of animal than the regular season.

And the best teams tend to respond to the moment, finding ways to succeed and survive rather than struggle and stumble. 

“We used today to prepare for (Game 4) so we can improve on those mistakes we made last game,” Bradley said. “Hopefully we’re able to get a win again if we’re playing with the same intensity as (Game 3).”

Isaiah Thomas finally gets some help from supporting cast in Game 3

Isaiah Thomas finally gets some help from supporting cast in Game 3

CHICAGO – When Isaiah Thomas goes to the bench, it’s a given that a run is about to happen.
 
But the Game 3 was different.
 
There was the usual surge on the floor in Thomas’ absence.

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Only this time it was the Celtics’ supporting cast pulling away while Thomas chilled on the bench, which was one of the many subplots in Boston’s 104-87 Game 3 win that has totally changed the narrative of this best-of-seven series.
 
Even though the Celtics still trail 2-1, there is no doubt the series’ momentum is in their favor.
 
They are coming off a strong victory and the one player who essentially set the table for the Bulls to play well – former Celtic Rajon Rondo – is out indefinitely with a right thumb fracture that’s likely to keep him sidelined for the rest of this series.
 
With or without Rondo, the Celtics still had to find ways to impact the game when Thomas wasn’t on the floor, a factor that has contributed to many of their losses in the regular season in addition to being a factor in Games 1 and 2.
 
“We need to be more like that,” Marcus Smart told CSNNE.com. “Isaiah’s a great player, does a lot of great things for us. But he can’t do it by himself. We need others to step up, and I thought we did a good job with that [in Game 3].”
 
Celtics coach Brad Stevens echoed similar sentiments about the play of Thomas’ supporting cast that either kept the lead, or increased it, in every stint Thomas had on the bench.
 
When Thomas left the game in the first quarter with 5:02 remaining, Boston led, 16-10.
 
His supporting cast absolutely smoked the Bulls in the final five minutes with a blistering 17-5 run led by Jae Crowder, who scored eight of his 10 first-quarter points in that surge.
 
And unlike many games this season, this was not a one-time only stretch of strong play by the supporting cast, either.
 
“The guys did it in the first quarter and later in the game,” said Stevens. “With him off the floor, we had a lot of guys contribute.”
 
And for them to win Game 4 Sunday night in Boston and potentially this series, that’s how it has to be for Boston.
 
“The Bulls are really putting a lot of attention on him [Thomas],” Stevens said. “Whenever he comes off the screen, two guys are on him.”
 
Thomas had a strong floor game in Game 3, displaying the ability to give the game what it needs.
 
Instead of eye-popping point totals, Thomas found that sweet spot between being a scoring threat (16 points) while getting his teammates the ball where they can be most effective (nine assists, only two turnovers)
 
But even more impressive was how his teammates carried the day when Thomas went to the bench for rest.
 
Factoring all that Thomas has endured this past week with the death of his 22-year-old sister Chyna J. Thomas a week ago today, it was only fitting that the team he has carried for so many games this season returned the favor by carrying the team to its first win of this postseason.
 
“It’s big,” said Kelly Olynyk. “We definitely lean on him a lot. He’s carried a lot of weight. For us to lift him up, especially the circumstances going on, it’s big. I’m glad we were able to do it. We got one more to get on Sunday.”