When Isaiah Thomas was sidelined with back and elbow injuries March 9, it was clear the Celtics would miss their new offensive spark plug. But did anyone know his absence would loom this large?

Boston won its first four games with Thomas in street clothes but has dropped its last three, including Sunday's overtime loss to Detroit. That contest, as well as Wednesday's 122-118 loss to the Thunder, saw the Celtics' offensive execution suffer down the stretch without Thomas' ability to win one-on-one battles.

The Celtics have already ruled out Thomas for Monday's game at Brooklyn, but the guard could be back as soon as Wednesday's tilt with Miami.

Boston has badly missed Thomas' ability to create shots or draw fouls late in games. After by trailing for double digits for most of the fourth quarter against Oklahoma City, the Celtics made a late charge but just didn't have quite enough boost to complete the comeback. On Sunday, Boston led 88-86 with 1:11 left in the fourth. The Pistons scored 15 of the next 17 points to help secure their win.

With Thomas absent, Brad Stevens turned to Evan Turner for the final shot of regulation, but the veteran guard doesn't have Thomas' one-on-one ability or late-game chops.

Since Boston acquired Thomas, the offense in the fourth quarter has flourished with him on the court and cratered in his absence. The Celtics score 128.6 points per 100 possessions in the final stanza with Thomas, compared to just 99.7 when he sits. The team's field goal percentage drops from 48.1 percent to 40.6.

These numbers don't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen Thomas operate in the clutch. Thomas is averaging 6.6 points per game in the fourth quarter this season, shooting 46.4 percent and averaging 2.4 free throw attempts. He's been even better since becoming a Celtic, scoring 8.9 points on 46.5 percent shooting and 3.4 free throws in the fourth.

Boston's other late game options simply aren't as appealing. Jared Sullinger is injured. Marcus Smart isn't ready for that role yet. Kelly Olynyk is in a shooting funk, and Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Tyler Zeller are all nice role players but struggle to create for themselves.

That left Stevens turning to Turner on the game's biggest possession, and the result was Boston's third straight loss. The good news is that Thomas should be back soon. But with the Celtics floundering and still half a game out of the playoffs, will it be soon enough?

Photo credit: Robert Mayer, USA Today Sports

Dan Hoppen 3/23/2015 09:23:00 AM Edit
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