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NBA Beat: Celtics getting the most out of Isaiah Thomas on both ends of the court

Former King Isaiah Thomas leads the Celtics in scoring and assists, but it is his defense that is garnering attention. “We’ve got a good defensive scheme and a defensive system that helps everybody out,” he said.
Former King Isaiah Thomas leads the Celtics in scoring and assists, but it is his defense that is garnering attention. “We’ve got a good defensive scheme and a defensive system that helps everybody out,” he said. The Associated Press

Isaiah Thomas has heard about his defense most of his NBA career, and it usually wasn’t good things being said.

That’s not the case lately.

Boston coach Brad Stevens is touting Thomas’ positive impact on the Celtics’ defense.

Since his days in Sacramento, Thomas has had to deal with the label of “scorer.” But as his game has matured, so has his ability to affect games on both ends of the court.

“He’s done a good job of obviously scoring the ball,” Stevens said. “But he also can create for our team, and we need him to continue to defend at the level he’s capable of because he’s really had an impact on that end, too.”

Thomas cracked a smile when it was brought to his attention that a coach was praising his defense.

“It’s just a good system, a good defensive system,” Thomas said. “It helps me out.”

The label of Thomas as someone who could not help defensively was unfair early in his career. Like most young players, he had his issues, and perhaps too much was expected.

And when you’re on a bad team, it’s easy to point out what someone needs to work on. And Thomas was the starting point guard on a team known for it’s inability to defend.

“Not saying my offensive game is great, but when something is better than the other, they’re always going to point out the weakness,” Thomas said. “If I was a liability on defense, I wouldn’t be in this league. That’s what I tell people, and I’m not.”

But gifted scorers can hang around even if their defense is shoddy. Thomas is a talented scorer but wants to be more. And for the Celtics, Thomas hearing what he can’t do is likely best for the team.

He’ll probably never get over being the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft, but that edge is what makes Thomas such a good player.

But back to defense, where Thomas knows there are doubters who point to his size (5-foot-9) and his lack of desire as reasons he cannot be a good defender.

“We’ve got a good defensive scheme and a defensive system that helps everybody out,” Thomas said. “Me just being in the right spot at all times is half the battle. I’m just trying to work on that end and become a better defensive player.”

Thomas leads Boston with 20.9 points and 6.3 assists per game, and his impact on both ends of the floor has increased with familiarity. Thomas came to Boston in a trade from Phoenix and helped the Celtics make the playoffs, where they were swept by Cleveland.

“The first time we really had a chance to talk about our defensive system, other than through film or through game play, was in training camp,” Stevens said. “So he’s still pretty new to us, but he’s done a good job with it for the most part.”

Last season Thomas was feeling things out on the fly.

“A lot of what I did last year, what the team did last year, was on the fly,” Thomas said. “We really didn’t practice too much, I really didn’t know too many plays. When I was out there it was kind of like open gym a little bit. I’m more familiar with the system and the guys around me and I think it’s helped a lot.”

The Celtics have played some good ball lately, including a win in Miami, with Thomas in the starting lineup with Marcus Smart out because of a knee injury.

Stevens said even if Smart returns to the starting lineup, it won’t change Thomas’ minutes or role. That’s good, because the Celtics are going to need Thomas’ defense.

Trending up

The Eastern Conference is more competitive this season with the Orlando Magic in the mix with a five-game winning streak.

What’s working for the Magic is no one player has to carry the team. One night it’s Tobias Harris, another night Elfrid Payton is putting up a double double.

The team whose youth could make them formidable in the future could accelerate the rebuilding process and become a playoff team this season.

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Philadelphia rookie Jahlil Okafor took attention away from his team’s miserable record the wrong way.

First, video was released of him fighting outside of a club. Next came the report he’d been stopped for driving 108 mph in Philadelphia.

The indiscretions were enough. The 76ers suspended their prized rookie for two games.

Last words

“No. I did everything I possibly could. It sounds crazy to say I won five championships and come up one short. But honestly, I’m OK with that. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to get six or seven. I did everything possible to try to make it happen, and I can live with that any day.”

– Kobe Bryant to TNT, when asked if it bothered him that he will retire winning fewer than six NBA championships.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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