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ATLANTA – Isaiah Thomas often credits his teammates for his nightly, high-scoring efforts. Most of the time he’s not being modest; he’s simply being honest.
While many of his heroic, offensive displays appear to be one-man shows on the surface, the various skill sets of his teammates truly are what allow him to be so successful night in and night out.
Friday night, Thomas notched a game-high 28 points in Atlanta, including the game-winning bucket with 2.4 seconds remaining that sent the Boston Celtics home with a 103-101 win.
Once again, he refused to take full credit for his terrific performance, and instead deflected it upon his peers – specifically toward Kelly Olynyk on this occasion.
Olynyk had his best game of the season as he notched 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers against the Hawks. But it wasn’t just the numbers that made the 7-footer so valuable Friday night; it was the fact that the Hawks were forced to respect his hot hand, which took some of the attention away from Thomas.
During the early stages of the contest, Atlanta’s tenacious defense was draped all over Thomas. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said ahead of the game that his squad would try to do everything it could to keep the East’s leading scorer from being effective.
So Atlanta double-teamed Thomas out of the gate, but that just left Olynyk wide open.
“The defense they were doing,” said Thomas, “especially in the first half when they were just doubling me and keeping two guys on me… Kelly is perfect for that situation because he spaces the floor and he’s going to knock down open shots.”
Olynyk responded by knocking down shot after shot, and he finished with 18 points during the first half alone.
“They’re a team that’s really help-oriented,” said Olynyk. “They tried to take IT out early, tried to trap him on pick and rolls, but he was making great early passes to shooters and we were wide open.”
Olynyk was one of the shooters who was being left wide open, and you just can’t do that against a high-percentage 3-point shooter and expect positive results.
“I wouldn’t say they were blatantly leaving me; they were trying to help on other guys and help on IT’s drives,” said Olynyk, who shot 9-of-11 from the field, 4-of-5 from 3, and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. “But in other games, if people don’t help, he’ll have 52 (points). So you gotta do something.”
The Hawks were forced to respect Olynyk’s shot during the second half. They had to keep one eye on him, and one eye on Thomas when the two were on the floor together.
However, one eye on Thomas is never enough. He will go to town if you don’t double-team him, which is exactly what he did during the second half – particularly during the fourth quarter when tallied 13 points.
Boston is fortunate to be loaded with offensive spark plugs, whether it’s Jae Crowder, Gerald Green, Terry Rozier, or others.
Friday night it happened to be Olynyk who stepped up, and Thomas likely would not have had the game that he had if it weren’t for the 7-footer’s hot hand.
“He took advantage of his opportunity, and we needed that,” said Thomas, who dished out three of his game-high nine assists to Olynyk. “We needed every shot that he made, and he played big for us.”
Big games from Thomas’ teammates often translate to big games for himself. When opposing teams are forced to respect the Celtics’ other hot hands, it eases the pressure off of IT and allows him to take over a game like he did Friday night.