Thomas close to healthy as Celtics battle Heat (Dec 18, 2016)

BY AP • December 18, 2016

MIAMI -- If you're healthy or close to it, you're playing. And if you're tired and we need you, you're also playing.

That's what Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas learned on Friday night, when he returned from a groin injury in a win over the Charlotte Hornets.

On Sunday, the Celtics (14-12) will visit the Miami Heat (9-18). Boston is in third place in the Eastern Conference but the Celtics also surely know that the Eastern Conference is tightly bunched and that the 11th-place Washington Wizards are only 2 1/2 games out of third place.

In other words, this is no time to let up, even if you are trying to work back from an injury that caused you to miss four games, which was the case for Thomas.

"Isaiah was gassed," Celtics teammate Jae Crowder told the media after Friday's game. "He was talking in the locker-room about how gassed he was. But he gives us a better chance to win."

Thomas played 35 minutes on Friday, including the entire fourth quarter. But Celtics coach Brad Stevens expressed similar thoughts to those of Crowder.

"You know," Stevens said half-jokingly, "(Thomas) didn't do anything all week."

Thomas did plenty on Friday, scoring a game-high 25 points.

On Sunday, Thomas will match wits with Heat point guard Goran Dragic. Thomas may all see some of Tyler Johnson, who missed Friday's game due to an illness.

Johnson is averaging 13.0 points this season. And while he has started all 25 of his games this season on the bench, he usually ends them on the court -- he leads all NBA players in fourth-quarter minutes.

But there is something else Johnson has added to his game this season, and that's his defense. He had a career-high four blocks in the last game he played, on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers. His previous high in a game was two.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who is hoping to get Johnson back in time for Sunday night's home game against the Boston Celtics, said he's pleased with his team's defensive effort so far.

"We emphasize challenging a lot and that doesn't necessarily mean blocking shots," Spoelstra said. "Some people have a better feel for it and better physical gifts to do it."

Johnson, at 6-foot-4 and with good leaping ability, seems to fall into that category.

He is holding offensive players he's guarding to 41.5-percent shooting, which is 2.7-percent lower than their averages. Johnson is sixth on the team in that category. James Johnson is No. 1 on the Heat, holding shooters to 11.8-percent below their averages.

In addition, Tyler Johnson is third on the Heat with 17 blocks. Hassan Whiteside is obviously first, and James Johnson is second.

Among guards, Tyler entered the weekend ranked third in the NBA in blocks with 17 -- tied with ex-Heat star Dwyane Wade.

"Dwyane is arguably the best shot-blocking guard of all time, and I think he is," Spoelstra said. "J-Rich (Josh Richardson) has that ability. Tyler has that ability. Justise Winslow has that ability.

"Even Goran has become better at it just by working hard, challenging and taking pride on making it tough."

Having those defenders healthy and active is part of the blueprint that Spoestra envisions. It hasn't really happened yet this season due to injuries, but the potential is there.

And then there's this: When Tyler Johnson is able to get two blocks per game, the Heat wins. It's a small sample size, but they are 5-1 in those instances.

Perhaps Johnson learned something from Wade in the shot-blocking department.

"Maybe in just seeing someone taking pride on the defensive side of the floor," Spoelstra said. "Those guys (Johnson, Richardson and Winslow) have taken it to the next level to finish plays off."

And if those opposing perimeter players get past the Heat guards, Whiteside is often waiting for the block.

"A lot of the times, I know where his guy is going," Whiteside said of the player Tyler Johnson is guarding. "A lot of those (blocked) shots, I'm just watching (Johnson) get."



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