TORONTO — Isaiah Thomas is a menace—one of the fastest players in the league and an absolute nightmare to contain, especially in the fourth quarter when his Boston Celtics force every possession through him and he rewards them with a 105.1 offensive rating this season. So, when the Toronto Raptors entered the final quarter of Wednesday night’s not-exactly-a-defensive-struggle game with a 96-90 lead over the Celtics, Thomas looked to take over. And Kyle Lowry looked to stop it.
Thomas did get his, doing what he does with nine points in the quarter (the rest of the Celtics had 10) while playing the full 12 minutes. But Lowry—who had the benefit of fresher legs after getting into foul trouble earlier in the game—was all over him, forcing Thomas into 4-of-11 shooting and putting an unexpected defensive stamp on a game when both teams scored at will for the first 36 minutes. That helped the Raptors nullify any thought of a comeback, as the team cruised to a 115-109 victory.
“He’s so talented, man,” Lowry said of Thomas. “He can get to the basket, he draws fouls, he shoots the ball really well. He’s number two in the league in fourth quarter scoring, so you’ve got to go in late. He’s just a talented player. Its kinda one of those things where you just try to contest his shots and hopefully he’ll miss them.”
Of course, this is the new Kyle Lowry, slimmed down and leaned out after an off-season of rigorous conditioning and strict dieting, which has allowed him to play more up-tempo defence late in games and keep his legs moving through screens to hunt down quicker guards. And it’s also the new Raptors, who are a top-five defensive team in 2015-16 after allowing up-tempo opponents to practically score at will in last season’s disappointing campaign.
On a night when speedy back-up point guard Cory Joseph was -17 and left on the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter, Lowry’s ability to contain Boston’s primary weapon was even more crucial.
“We really locked in on him,” Lowry said. “We switched a lot. Our bigs were talking to us. We made him take contested shots. We had to lock in and stay with our defensive principles and coverages.”
Of course, this stands in stark contrast to what happened when the Celtics came to town last April on the same night the Raptors lifted their second consecutive Atlantic Division championship banner to the rafters. As most of the recent meetings between these two teams seem to be, that game was a hard-fought affair (Raptors head coach Dwane Casey called it a “playoff-style game”). But on that night, Thomas had the upper hand.
DeMar DeRozan had tied the game in the dying seconds to send it to overtime where the mercurial Lou Williams gave the Raptors a one-point lead with one of those off-balance, confidence-for-days, this-prayer-has-no-business-going-in threes that made him such a delight to his fans and a frustration to his coaches.
At that point there were 2.6 seconds left in OT. Everyone in the building stood. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens considered his limited options and drew up a play the Raptors run all the time, a slashing drive for Thomas on an ultra-high screen-and-roll meant to slow up Williams (he was assigned to guard Thomas instead of Lowry) and give the Celtics point guard a direct lane to the basket.
Casey read it the entire way and started jumping up and down on the half court sideline, trying to alert Williams and his teammates to what was happening. Thomas began in his own end, took the ball at half court and flew off the screen, charging at the rim with next-level speed (“It was only two seconds and he went damn near full court,” DeRozan said that night) as Williams scrambled to keep up. James Johnson crashed the lane behind Thomas to help and actually ended up blocking Thomas’ shot, but the ball fell right into the hands of Marcus Smart under the basket, who flipped it up off the backboard as time expired for a bucket and a one-point Celtics victory. Casey still shakes his head when he talks about it.
“I’ve watched that one too many times,” Casey says. “He broke our hearts with our own play.”
This is how Thomas can change games. Listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he’s one of the smallest guards in the league and easily one of the quickest and most deceptive. He seems to only have two gears—neutral and hyper-drive, which can lull defenders into a bit of a malaise when he works the floor in a hunched-over walk before suddenly going from zero to 100. When he turns it on he doesn’t so much run as he teleports, and that acceleration means defenders absolutely must stay vigilant lest they take their eyes off him for a split second and then look back to find him gone.
“His speed with the basketball is uncanny,” Casey says. “He’s one of the hardest guys in the league to guard.”
But in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, the new Lowry found a way. And the new Raptors found their sixth consecutive win. In a game that featured two teams shooting over 50 per cent, that’s a defensive positive to go home with.