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With attention on Isaiah Thomas, Celtics flip the script on Wizards

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics big man Al Horford often sits down with assistant coach Jay Larranaga before games to watch video clips that highlight areas of focus for that night's opponent. Before Wednesday's Game 5 against the Washington Wizards, Larranaga informed Horford of an unusual tweak that Boston might utilize, but he didn't really have much video to showcase it.

"He was like, 'Isaiah might come over and screen for you,'" said Horford, a smile creeping across his face at the suggestion that Boston's 5-foot-9 point guard would be the one holding up Horford's beefy defenders.

But there was Thomas in the opening minutes of the first quarter, recognizing that Washington's defense was swarming him even when he didn't have the ball. So as Horford stood alone above the 3-point arc, Thomas essentially ran into 6-foot-11 Marcin Gortat and, with Bradley Beal already attached to Thomas' hip, created a human force field for Horford to fire away with a 25-foot 3-pointer that helped fuel Boston's double-digit first-quarter run.

"As a basketball player, you've got to read what the defense is giving you, and they're really having two or three guys on me at all times," Thomas said. "So what I'm trying to do is give other guys space, create space for others and also be a good screen-setter."

Let that sink in. Isaiah Thomas: screen setter.

"I'm versatile," Thomas said. "I do it all."

Horford finished with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting with seven assists, six rebounds and three blocks. Avery Bradley scored 25 of his playoff career-high 29 points in the first half as the Celtics built a comfortable cushion. And, pouncing whenever the Wizards relaxed on him, Thomas added 18 points and nine assists in a 123-101 triumph at TD Garden.

The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday in Washington.

After getting steamrollered by big runs in Games 3 (22-0 in the first quarter) and 4 (26-0 in the third quarter) in D.C., the Celtics flipped the script on Wednesday night. Boston utilized a 16-0 first-quarter run and got a boost from Bradley's offensive outburst to lead for 44 minutes, 42 seconds in a game that featured just one lead change.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens pressed all the right buttons. He elected to stick with Amir Johnson in a starting role. Johnson was on the floor for the entirety of Boston's first-quarter run, looking spry by throwing down an alley-oop dunk from Thomas to cap the lopsided burst.

But it was Bradley and Horford who best took advantage of the attention being paid to Thomas. Before Wednesday's game, Thomas had told Bradley he was going to have a big night. For much of the game, Stevens funneled Boston's offense through Horford, who responded with another brilliant all-around effort in which he made all the right basketball plays.

"I think that with Isaiah getting so much attention, we needed to step up and make plays," Horford said. "I felt like Isaiah did a good job delivering the ball, getting rid of it at the right times, and we just made plays."

Thomas quietly topped the team in points produced via both scoring and assists (41), but Bradley (36) and Horford (35) were close behind. That the three players had a hand in 112 points tells you just how effective they were.

"Avery was on fire, Al was terrific," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. "We had no answer for those guys."

Bradley entered Thursday's game with a hip pointer on each side of his body. It hardly seemed to bother him, as he connected on 12 of 19 shots, including four 3-pointers.

"He played like he's supposed to," Thomas said. "He played through [his injuries]. It's the playoffs, and we need him to play that way. He put his injuries aside and laced his shoes up and played.

"He was the key to this game. On both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively, he did it all, and we need that from him. Especially in Game 6, we're gonna need that from him. I'm proud of him. I told him before the game that I believe in him, and he's gonna have a big game, and he did."

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Wizards were 3-of-7 shooting against Bradley when he was the primary defender. It's worth noting that five of Bradley's teammates defended more shots on this night, suggesting that Bradley's man more often moved the ball instead of shooting. John Wall finished 1-of-3 shooting with a turnover against Bradley.

You could make a case that Horford was even more brilliant on this night. He might have finished the night perfect from the floor if not for a 3-pointer that was just a bit too long early in the third quarter.

Horford utilized Thomas as the undersized screener and enjoyed ample space to shoot when he did. Considering how often Horford screens for Thomas, he enjoyed the rare role reversal.

"I've never done that before, and he did it. He set a great screen, and I scored a couple times," Horford said. "It was nice for a change."

Meanwhile, Horford and Bradley volleyed praise to each other after the game.

"I think Al brings so much to this team," Bradley said. "He's a veteran leader. He's been in this position before. Oh man. I just really enjoy playing with him."

Countered Horford: "He was really locked in, and you could just tell from the beginning he was ready to go. And Avery was amazing tonight. I'm just really blown away to see how good he was."

Horford complimented Bradley's two-way impact, but it was Horford who limited the Wizards to 2-of-12 shooting when he was the primary defender in Game 5. According to ESPN Stats & Info research, the Wizards are 6-of-25 shooting the past two games when Horford is the primary defender; they had been 20-of-37 the previous three games.

In NBA history, the team that wins Game 5 of a best-of-seven series that was tied 2-2 has gone on to win the series 83 percent of the time. What's more, the Wizards have not won a game at home facing elimination since 1988, losing seven straight in that span.

But Boston knows the chess match will continue. Considering how poorly they played in D.C. in Games 3 and 4, they will need to sustain Wednesday's effort to close out this series and avoid a winner-take-all Game 7 back in Boston on Monday night.

"We know what's at stake," Thomas said. "We know it's going to be a hostile environment. We know it's going to be tough to get a win out there. But if we lock in like we did tonight, limit our turnovers, limit their transition, that gives us the best chance to win the game.

"We did a hell of a job tonight, from the first guy to the last guy. Coach made great adjustments, and we took what was off the whiteboard and put it on the court, and we've just got to do that on Friday."