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Isaiah Thomas knows he must stand tall for Celtics to excel in playoffs

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley wandered into a media scrum after Friday's practice, he spotted a small step stool where players typically stand for their question-and-answer sessions.

"Who is that for, Isaiah?" Bradley asked.

Yes, not even elevating to All-Star status spares Isaiah Thomas from short jokes around his teammates. The 5-foot-9 Thomas played along, however, making a similar crack when he shuffled over soon after. Thomas quickly turned serious -- this is the playoffs, after all -- and his focus is solely on boosting the Celtics further into the national spotlight.

After getting a small taste of playoff basketball after arriving in Boston last season, Thomas has been waiting for this moment. The Cleveland Cavaliers smothered him in last year's postseason and it contributed to Boston being unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs.

Over the summer, Thomas immersed himself in film. He watched Steve Nash for offensive creativity and Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to hone his scoring ability. He watched Bruce Lee for inspiration and adopted his "be like water" mentality.

Thomas didn't just elevate to All-Star status this season, he put himself in the conversation for a spot on the All-NBA team. Now, as the fifth-seeded Celtics prepare to open the playoffs on the road Saturday against the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, Thomas is hell-bent on leaving his mark on the postseason.

"I learned a lot [from the 2015 playoffs]," Thomas said. "You gotta adjust to whatever the team’s doing and be able to still contribute, even if they’re trying to take away your aggressiveness or your scoring ability or whatever the case may be. The best players figure it out. I know [the Hawks will] probably try to not just contain me but to try to slow me down. But you just gotta stay at it and continue to keep your foot on the pedal."

The Hawks were one of the few teams in the league this season that were successful in containing Thomas, or at least making him work for his points. Atlanta held him to a modest 20.5 points per game on 38 percent shooting. His struggles were particularly pronounced in Atlanta, where he averaged 15 points per game on a mere 30 percent shooting.

For the year, Thomas averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 32.2 minutes per game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thomas is only the third Celtics player to average better than 22 points and six assists, joining Hall of Famers Larry Bird and John Havlicek.

Thomas' importance to Boston's offense cannot be overstated. The Celtics average 106.4 points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the floor. That's 2.5 points higher than the team's 13th-ranked season average of 103.9. And Boston's offensive rating plummets to 98.7 without him, a 7.7-point drop.

The Hawks will almost certainly load up the paint trying to deter Thomas and challenge the rest of Boston's supporting cast to make jumpers. Thomas wants to make sure he can still find his offense when that happens, but also take advantage of that attention to create for his teammates.

Atlanta quietly climbed the defensive rankings this season. The Hawks finished second in the league, allowing a mere 98.8 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs. Since the All-Star break, the Hawks have dropped that rating to 96.8 and -- as the Celtics know too well from their most recent loss in Atlanta -- the Hawks can clamp down when they need to (Boston labored through a 36-point second half last Saturday after posting a 71-point first half).

For all his accomplishments during the regular season, Thomas knows full well that stars are made on the big stage and in big moments.

Thomas has been Mr. Clutch for Boston. He's far and away the team's leading scorer in crunch time -- when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of play -- while posting 144 points, a number that ranked fifth in the league behind only Reggie Jackson (178), James Harden (172), Paul George (150) and Kevin Durant (148).

Boston's inability to score late in games hurt the team in last year's playoffs.

“It’s tough to win a game. That’s probably the biggest [takeaway from last season]," Thomas said. "Three out of those four games we played Cleveland, we had a chance to win down the stretch and we just didn’t know how to win. I think hopefully that changes this year."

The key for Thomas could be maintaining an ability to attack and finish at the basket. Thomas averaged 11.7 drive attempts per game this season, which was the highest in the NBA. On those drives, he averaged 7.6 points per game, the third-best mark in the league, on 45.4 percent shooting. Thomas averaged 12 drives per game versus Atlanta this season, but his production dipped slightly to 6.8 points on 34.8 percent shooting.

Asked about his mindset heading into Round 1, Thomas said: "Just stay in attack mode. Don’t let whatever they do try to slow me down."

The focus can't just be on offense for Thomas. The league's player-tracking data reveals that the Hawks shot a whopping 60.7 percent (17-of-28) against Thomas in four games this season. That's 17.1 percent higher than the 43.6 percent that Thomas limited opponents to overall this season (an excellent number that was actually 0.4 points below the season average of those players he defended). The Hawks exploited Thomas at the 3-point line (6-of-11) and near the basket (8-of-11 inside 6 feet).

For his part, Thomas seems locked in. During the team's flight to Atlanta, he tweeted a message suggesting he was signing off social media for the playoffs (call it Zero Dark 5-foot-9). This was after Thomas penned a love letter to Boston via The Players' Tribune. It read a bit like a recruiting letter, but the best way to persuade others to join Thomas might just be postseason victories.

Boston will wear T-shirts that read, "We're one superstar," a motto coined by Jae Crowder to describe how Boston's best basketball has come when everyone on the team contributes. Make no mistake -- Thomas is as close to a superstar as the Celtics have. He must reaffirm that on the big stage. And if the Hawks find a way to hold him down, the rest of Boston's roster is going to need to grab that stool and step up.