What Isaiah Thomas did this summer is become more efficient with his shooting fundamentals. Instead of repeatedly practicing the same habits, Thomas decided to attempt the same amount of shots the right way.
Thomas relied on his natural strength in shooting jump shots and eliminated his propensity of leaning forward to spring himself toward the basket or kick out his leg for more momentum. It appears to be a minor adjustment, but it is the primary reason Thomas is having such an outstanding offensive season.
What stood out about Thomas’s rather expected 35-point performance Monday, including 17 in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ 108-98 win over the Charlotte Hornets, was that he scored 21 of those points by way of the 3-pointer.
He attempted a career-high 15, which was cool because he made seven. Thomas is shooting 47.1 percent — 33 for 70 — in January and he is shooting a career-best 38.3 percent for the season. Thomas is attempting and making a career high in 3-pointers this season and while he has been known as a master dribble-driver, it is his ability to consistently knock down the 3-pointer that has completely opened up the floor for him.
The 3-point shot enabled him to score 35 points without attempting a free throw, snapping a streak of 60 consecutive games with one. Thomas is not a natural 3-point shooter. It is a skill he has worked hard to acquire, so when he was told he had attempted a career high, he was rather surprised.
“How many did I shoot?” he asked. “Damn.”
The importance of Thomas’s ability to convert the 3-pointer cannot be understated as he puts together an MVP-type season. Thomas scores big in the fourth quarter because he can release his 3-pointer quicker than in the past and he has more body balance, and the results are startling.
He has made 42 3-pointers in his past eight games, including nine against Miami, six against New Orleans, and 17 in the past three games.
“It’s opened up a lot because I like to penetrate,” he said. “And usually [defenders] are trying to take away from me penetrating, getting to the hole. Now I’m able to knock down shots, the defense just has to pick what they want to take away and I just gotta read that and make plays off that.
“So I’m in a really good place right now. My [sprained middle] finger feels good. I can feel the ball and my teammates put me in that position to be me, and that’s all I can say.”
The me Isaiah is referring to is ever changing, ever improving. Celtics coach Brad Stevens is getting the most out of Thomas by playing him in limited minutes. He is averaging 28.4 points in just 33.8 minutes. Thomas entered Monday 36th in the NBA in minutes, meaning he is being kept fresh and energetic for these fourth quarters.
Stevens has maintained a high level of trust in Thomas and his decision-making. He wasn’t pleased after one of Thomas’s “heat check” 3-point attempts in the fourth period and called a timeout soon after, but Thomas isn’t taking those types often. His shots are completely in the flow of the game, and his 3-pointers have become a primary weapon.
“I think the law of averages were going to kick in after the start of the season,” Stevens said about Thomas’s 3-point improvement after a tough opening month. “I mean, he was down in percentage-wise but that’s continuously risen, which you knew would. But I think the biggest thing that Isaiah — and Isaiah spent a lot of time on this this summer — was getting quickly off the ball into his shot.
“And you know if you look around the league, some of the hardest guys to guard are those guys that can get it in a millisecond off the ground into that smooth release and make shots, which is really hard to do from that distance. But he’s put in a lot of time and effort to become better at that.”
So Thomas has not only become a better scorer, he has become a better shooter. There is definitely a difference. Scorers chuck shots. Scorers hit bad shots but also take a higher percentage of bad shots. Thomas has added the 3-point shot to his silky midrange game and ability to score at the time. It’s getting to the point where there isn’t a bad shot.
It’s a byproduct of those workouts in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., where he was pushing himself to practice more fundamentals.
“I just focused on little things; trying to shoot the ball the same way every time,” he said. “Trying to get my feet under the ball and keep my follow through up. It wasn’t nothing where I’m shooting more shots than usual. It was really trying to figure where I can get better at on my shot. Previous years, I was fading, kicking one leg out, doing things like that. Now I’m trying to be more disciplined in my shooting.
“Just watching film in the summer and trying to correct those minor things that make me a more consistent shooter.”
It’s those minor things that have become paramount to Thomas’s ascension as not only a scorer but an overall player and leader.