Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy had just watched Isaiah Thomas shred his team in the fourth quarter, just as Thomas has shredded most teams in the fourth quarter this season, and he was exasperated.
“The only person I’m upset at right now is myself,” Van Gundy said. “The fourth quarter — I’ve coached like 800 games in this league; you’ve got to do a better job than what I did.”
There are only so many ways to stop Thomas, so many schemes to throw at him. And thus far, particularly when a game’s defining moment arrives, most have been futile. But Van Gundy still wondered why he had not done more or tried something different.
“Shoot, triple-team him, run everybody at him,” he said. “Bottom line is, when they hit the fourth quarter — and I don’t mean any disrespect to any of their other players — he’s playing so well right now that he’s just a one-man team. Make somebody else do something, and I didn’t do that, and that’s on me.”
On Monday, Thomas turned a relatively quiet and uneventful evening on its head. The All-Star poured in 24 of his 41 points in the fourth, helping the Celtics take a 113-109 win, their fourth in a row.
Afterward, Thomas was asked if a unique Van Gundy adjustment would have even mattered. So many coaches have tried the unique adjustments, and they hardly ever matter. The All-Star held back a smile.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it. I just tried to execute what they’re doing to me, figure out if they’re doubling or figure out if they’re switching, and then attack. I really don’t try to pay attention too much to what they’re doing.”
Despite Van Gundy’s insinuation that he sat idly back and watched Thomas devour his team, Detroit did try things. It tried switching more frequently on pick-and-rolls. It tried blitzing him. So Celtics coach Brad Stevens responded by moving Thomas off the ball, freeing him up with screens and sharp cuts, and then letting him go to work.
“And then when he got going late, he just got going, so it didn’t matter if he was off the ball, on the ball, whatever,” Stevens said. “He was unbelievable.”
Jae Crowder continued his season of torrid 3-point shooting, hitting 4 of 6 and finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds. Also, Al Horford returned after missing two games with a mild groin strain and had 13 points 6, rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks. As he dressed at his locker afterward, Jonas Jerebko and Gerald Green both stopped to tell him it was good to have him back.
“It’s good to be back,” Horford said, smiling.
The Celtics have dealt with countless minor but nagging injuries this season, but it appears they will soon be whole once again. Guard Avery Bradley, who has missed 11 of the last 12 games because of a strained Achilles’ tendon, took part in a workout before the game and said he planned to practice on Tuesday and is aiming to play against the Raptors on Wednesday.
But even if he is not quite ready, Boston has consistently shown that its depth is substantial enough to overcome bumps and bruises to key parts, as evidenced by a 30-18 record that suddenly has it just 2½ games behind the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers for first in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Thomas said, “but we’re headed in that direction.”
For much of Monday’s game, the Pistons’ 3-point attempts clanged, thudded, and popped off the rim. They bounced everywhere except through the net, with a display that would seem more common at a youth league game. Detroit missed 22 of its first 23 3-pointers, but it lingered by attacking the basket, where the shooting percentages were not so grisly.
The Celtics had a seemingly comfortable 85-76 fourth-quarter lead, but then Marcus Morris hit a 3-pointer, Ish Smith had a steal and a dunk, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was fouled as he attempted a 3. The ensuing foul shots and a layup by Andre Drummond (28 points, 22 rebounds) gave the Pistons a 93-90 lead, their first since early in the second period.
Then Thomas responded. Over a four-minute stretch, he hit back-to-back 3-pointers from the right arc, made a layup as he was fouled, and pulled up for a 6-footer.
“We had nice spacing, things opened up for me, and I just took advantage of it,” Thomas said.
With the Celtics clinging to a 104-103 lead with 2:29 left, Thomas hit yet another 3, this one from the left arc. Detroit cut the deficit to 2 before Thomas drained a pull-up from the left elbow.
The Celtics led, 109-107, and had the ball with 31.1 seconds left when they committed an odd backcourt violation on an inbounds pass, giving the Pistons a chance. But Reggie Jackson’s layup attempt was blocked by Horford.
Thomas sealed the win with four free throws, as the “MVP” chants that have become so common at TD Garden grew ever louder.