At this point the book on defending Isaiah Thomas is pretty cut and dried: blitz him on pick and rolls and rely on a sheer size mismatch to force him into turnovers and/or ineffectiveness.
“Well, then you shouldn’t run any pick and roll plays, then” you might say. That’s fair. Maybe there are ways to spring Isaiah without resorting to the pick and roll.
But… what if Jimmy Butler is guarding him? That might be a Chicago 4th quarter strategy aimed at neutralizing the NBA’s deadliest 4th quarter scorer. At that point, a pick and roll might be a great option to get a really good defender off your best scorer.
Oh… but wait… the blitzing!
No problem. There are ways to avoid an instant double team on IT when he has the ball and is looking for a pick to get free. One of them is the double pick. Here’s a quick look at how to run a double screen for Thomas with a few of the options that flow out of it.
The set up is simple. Isaiah at the top of the key, and Crowder/Horford coming up on either side to set picks.
Isaiah has a choice. Defenders have to wait because if the wrong guy jumps the gun, or if they both try to attack, then one of the pick-setters can slip it, the other can flare and you’re in a 4-on-2 situation with defenders scrambling.
Once Isaiah picks a side, the rest of the offense can flow from there. This isn’t even really a set play… just an example of how options develop.
In this scenario, Isaiah goes right. Horford will set a little chip screen on Crowder’s guy so he can roll hard to the basket with IT without wasting too much time. The key here is to (a) give IT a roll option and (b) to get a defender trailing Crowder for a 3 point option.
At this point, Avery Bradley’s defender will naturally react to Thomas being free… leaving Bradley an opportunity to slide into a slightly different spot to open himself up for the 3. Crowder should be an option as well as might be Al going to the basket. If that roll to the basket isn’t there, Al needs to clear out to give IT some space… either to take it to the rim or keep it rolling.
Let’s keep it rolling just for the sake of play development. For Bradley to not get that shot, his defender will have to ride up the sideline with him. Thomas is free to use his speed to turn the corner. If he can’t get the layup, he can keep going along the baseline…
The threat of an Isaiah reverse will draw Horford’s defender
From there, passing lanes open up. If Horford’s defender overreacts, Al is open in the corner. If Bradley’s defender falls asleep, Avery can duck in for a mid-range jumper… meanwhile, I’ve got Amir sliding up to set a pick to free Amir Johnson for a high-opposite pass for 3 (note: high-opposite… i.e. passes from a low side of the court to a high, opposite side of the court, are a great way to get 3’s in a half court set). Isaiah would have to reverse course and not go baseline to make this pass… it’s up to him to read it.
For the sake of play development, let’s say he keeps on going… Horford can run up and set another quick pick because at this point he’s read that the high-opposite pass isn’t happening. He’ll set a screen for Crowder to keep on coming down for a potential sideline 3…
From there, other options develop. Horford rolls hard and gets a pass from IT and, if Avery’s defender overreacts there’s a corner 3 for Bradley right there. Jae keeps on coming down the corner just for spacing and Amir is flaring out to the 3 point line as a safety valve.
This can keep developing over and over and over again. It’s up to guys to ultimately read and react to what the defense gives but it all starts with the double pick at the top. If Isaiah reads the wrong defender going for the double he can reverse course and create instant mismatches. Really, though, the double pick just creates enough hesitation for the super-quick Thomas to make a quick decision and go before he’s blitzed. Once he’s gone, he’s gone, and it triggers a cascading series of options for the Celtics. I’ve laid out just a few possibilities based on one decision from Thomas, and, frankly, I haven’t gone into any of the shooting possibilities IT might have here simply for the sake of showing how options develop.
You can go right to the first diagram and stop there if Isaiah sees his defender trailing the pick and Horford’s defender slow to step up. That’s an automatic 3-point attempt. Not only that, that’s a play where Isaiah has gotten fouled a lot this year.
We haven’t seen this much this season… which makes it perfect for the postseason. It’s a little unexpected and, in this series, stopping it requires personnel the Bulls don’t necessarily have. We’ll see if Brad Stevens unleashes it in this series.