There was not one player more dangerous than Isaiah Thomas in the fourth quarter last season. Not one.
In 70 appearances for the Boston Celtics last season, Thomas scored a league-high 684 points in the fourth quarter on an impressive 46.7 percent shooting from the field and 37.6 percent shooting from behind the arc, earning him the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter.”
However, that was last season. This season has been a completely different story.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Thomas has attempted 71 shots in the fourth quarter, the third most in the NBA behind Lou Williams (73) and Buddy Hield (72). Of those 71 shot attempts, Thomas has only made 25. His 35.2 percent shooting from the field in the fourth quarter is the lowest among players that have attempted at least 50 shots in the final quarter of play.
So why give him the green light in close game situations?
“We have all the confidence in the world that he’s going to make those shots,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said of Thomas following a cold shooting night from I.T. “Most nights he will. He’s proven he’s one of those players that the fourth quarter, the bigger the game gets, the more pressure, that’s when he plays his best.”
And that quote perfectly encapsulates the problem with the way the Lakers have handled Thomas to date. They’re talking about the player Thomas was and the player they’re hoping Thomas can be again, which is fine. You can argue that Thomas has earned that.
But Thomas in his current form, the only form that matters to the Lakers right now, doesn’t hit bigs shots with the game on the line. He’s can’t give you double-digit points in the fourth quarter. That’s just not who Isaiah Thomas is right now, and that’s okay, as long as he and the coaching staff realize that.
The problem is, they don’t. Thomas especially.
Give me the same opportunity I had last season and I’ll do the same stuff. You can’t compare this year and last year. My opportunity is totally different! Be a real student of the game and stop just looking at stats dumbass https://t.co/ckQbdODaKv— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 19, 2018
“If I play in the fourth quarter, I’m going to do the things I use to do,” Thomas said. “[Luke Walton] is giving me the opportunities to play and make plays, the easy part is going out there and doing it.”
Making plays hasn’t the issue for Thomas. In fact, it has indisputably been the best part of his game this season. The issue is his longing to be “the guy” in the fourth quarter again.
Thomas has attempted a team-high 5.5 shots per game in the fourth quarter since the All-Star break, the most attempts from him in any quarter by a whole two points. It’s like as soon as the fourth quarter clock starts running, Thomas gets his shots up in hopes of a few of them falling and the narrative around him changing. So Thomas can finally say to the world “I’m back.”
And hopefully one day soon he will be. The league is a better place when the best players are playing at their highest level. But on a young team with unproven players waiting for their shot to be the next “Mr. Fourth Quarter,” Thomas has been detrimental in that respect.
Maybe next time the game is on the line, Thomas should turn to rookie Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 4.9 points per game in the fourth quarter on 47.3 percent shooting from the field and 36.8 percent shooting from three this season. Kuzma is second among rookies in fourth quarter scoring.
Or perhaps Thomas can get the ball into Julius Randle, who he has formed chemistry with in his brief time in Los Angeles, as Lakers Nation’s Harrison Faigen pointed out earlier this week.
Of two-man pairings to play more than 200 minutes together, Randle and Thomas lap the rest of the Lakers’ field. Lakers lineups featuring those two have outscored opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions.
For comparison, lineups featuring Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have a net rating of 13.8. Chris Paul and James Harden have posted a 13.5 in their minutes together. This isn’t to say Randle and Thomas are better than those duos, but more to demonstrate just how effective they’ve been in their limited time together.
Whoever they decide to turn to, it’s becoming clear that Thomas isn’t the guy. Hopefully, for his sake and the team’s, that changes soon.
All stats were provided by stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.