CLEVELAND — Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas has made no secret of his desire to be a starter. But he said that if he has to come off the bench, he would like to be better in that role than anyone.
As he put up impressive statistics and helped guide the Celtics to the playoffs, he emerged as a leading candidate for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. But on Monday it was announced that Thomas finished second to Raptors guard Lou Williams.
“All I’m going to say is numbers don’t lie,” Thomas said. “But congrats to [Williams]. He deserves it.”
Thomas averaged 16.4 points and 4.2 assists while playing for both the Suns and Celtics this season. Williams averaged 15.5 points and 2.1 assists.
The Raptors guard probably gained an edge because he played in 80 games to Thomas’s 67, and because Toronto won a franchise-record 49 games. Thomas’s chances, meanwhile, might have been affected by the fact that he was traded at midseason and was unable to establish an identity with either Phoenix or Boston.
Williams finished with 78 first-place votes; Thomas received 33.
“Lou Williams is a very deserving candidate,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But Isaiah would have been my vote.”
Of course, Thomas has more pressing matters than an individual award. He is now focused on keeping Boston within striking distance in its first-round playoff series with the Cavaliers.
In the Celtics’ 113-100 loss in Game 1 on Sunday, Thomas had 22 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds, joining Oscar Robertson and LeBron James as the only players to reach the 20-point, 10-assist, 5-rebound marks in their playoff debuts, according NBA.com. The performance made an impression on the Cavaliers.
“He’s a scorer at all times, and our antennas need to be up when he comes into the game,” James said. “His ability to make shots, to get into the lane, to get to the free throw line. He raises their level as far as their tempo; it goes up when he comes into the game.”
James said the Cavaliers want to do a better job of creating congestion around Thomas in Game 2.
“It’s not the guy that’s on him,” James said. “It’s showing him a crowd. It’s not going to be easy. Anyone that’s built low to the ground like that with that speed and that strength, it’s going to be hard to keep [him] out of the lane. Once he gets into the lane, you just try to show a crowd, show bodies, show hands, and make him take tough shots.”
The Celtics would like to clean up their transition defense in Game 2 on Tuesday. Guard Avery Bradley said that in Game 1, Boston’s backcourt players were sometimes caught up in “cross-matching.”
“I’d be guarding J.R. Smith and Kyrie [Irving] would be guarding me,” Bradley said. “When I’m getting back on defense, I’m running with Kyrie, and Isaiah is guarding Kyrie, and we crossed up and Isaiah and I were both running to the same guy, and J.R.’s getting a wide-open 3.”
Despite Sunday’s loss, the Celtics were relaxed and eager for their next chance. This team has done well to move past difficult losses this season and rebound quickly, and Stevens hopes it happens again. The team watched tape Monday morning and had a light practice in the afternoon.
“I’m encouraged by the guys we have in this room,” Stevens said. “They usually respond well. They’re able to change on the fly.”