“Enter the Sandman” by Metallica was the entrance song of legendary New York Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, 652 times he put their opponents to sleep. The Boston Celtics are in desperate need of their own “Sandman” to be able to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. An NBA closer has to be able to create their own shot, a shot for others, or get to the line. Right now the Celtics look to the 5’9” Isaiah Thomas as their closer in tight games.
Thomas is a quick and tough point guard as well as the Celtics’ leading scorer at 26 points a night while dropping 6.1 dimes (assists) a night. Shooting 33% from three including 62.6% at the rim according to Basketball Reference.com. Thomas is also their leading scorer in crunch time (the last five minutes of games that have a five point differential or less) averaging 4.1 points in those games but it is difficult for the Celtics to depend on such a small guard in those situations. Guards like James Harden and Russell Westbrook are closers for their teams and have the ability to get to the line at a rate higher than anyone else in the NBA. In crunch time Harden gets to the line 3.3 times a game and Westbrook 2.5 times compared to Thomas’ 1.7 attempts during closing time.
In the play below against the Houston Rockets, the Celtics got the matchup they wanted with a big on Thomas. He used his speed and ability to get to what he believed was a clear path to the rim. As he went up for the shot, the defender recovered and was able to send the ball into the first row.
In the same game, the Celtics put the ball in Thomas’ hands with a chance to hit the go ahead basket. The speedy guard blew by Harden but had to try to finish higher than normal because the weakside help came over to alter the shot.
The Celtics would lose this game against the Rockets despite leading by six points with five minutes left in the game. They came away with several empty possessions on the offensive end, only scoring six more points in the final five minutes.
The Celtics as a whole have a negative 1.4 net rating in crunchtime, which pales in comparison to their counterparts in the Eastern Conference, the Cavs are a positive 20.5 and the Raptors a plus 12.0 according the NBA.com/Stats clutch stats. The other issue is the Celtics are not getting the free throw all that much in these tight games averaging just 2.7 free throws in those final minutes.
In their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Celtics had several miscues. Thomas was out with an injury this game but the Celtics blew another fourth quarter lead including two pivotal turnovers down the stretch when Avery Bradley tried to get the ball to Al Horford on a pick-and-roll, then a bad pass from Horford when he thought Terry Rozier was cutting back door.
This is not to say that Thomas is not a good player, but good players do not necessarily make for good closers. One of the toughest positions to fill on a roster is that of a closer, someone who can put a game away down the stretch, can get to the line or hit the game winner when it’s all on the line. The closer will make every offensive possession count, and their team will not have several consecutive empty possessions.
When Mariano entered games for the New York Yankees, it was an all but certainty that he was going to turn out the lights on his opponents. Like Metallica sang, “Exit Light, Enter Night”, if the Celtics really want to compete in the big leagues of the NBA they will to find their own “Sandman”.