How Isaiah Thomas became the face of the Boston Celtics

Isaiah Thomas

In a sport like basketball, and in a league like the National Basketball Association, every time someone sees Isaiah Jamar Thomas, the first thing they undoubtedly notice his height. Sure, he stands 5-foot-9, which is the height for the average American male.

But the NBA isn’t the place for the average American male. After all, Thomas would be three or four inches shorter than even the shortest point guards in the NBA. He’s about a half-foot shorter than Russell Westbrook, the point guard dynamo for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the presumptive favorite for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. And we shouldn’t even get into comparing how he’d fare against teams using an unorthodox player at the point guard position, like the Houston Rockets do with James Harden (who stands 6’5) or the Milwaukee Bucks do with Giannis Antetokounmpo (who stands 6’11).

But as the saying goes: you can measure the size of the dog in the fight, but you can never measure the size of the fight in the dog.

MR. IRRELEVANT

After all, Thomas is used to people overlooking everything about him, except his height, at this point in his career. Despite winning the  Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, and being named a three-time all-conference selection in the Pac-10, as well as one of the 10 final candidates for the Bob Cousy Award (given to the top men’s collegiate point guard) in his final season at the University of Washington, Thomas was selected with the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, by the woeful Sacramento Kings. That was the very last pick in the entire draft, essentially giving him the designation of “Mr. Irrelevant,” as is referred to in the NFL Draft. There were numerous stories by reporters who were wowed by the composure, confidence, and charisma of Thomas, after interacting with him at the NBA Scouting Combine, but even they believed Thomas would never stand a chance in the NBA, as his lack of height would be too much of an impediment to get over.

Isaiah Thomas

 

While the vast majority of second round picks fail to make any noteworthy contributions to their team, especially not in their rookie year, Thomas proved he was — again — not your usual point guard. In February of his rookie season, Thomas recorded his first double-double with 23 points and 11 assists against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and was named the Western Conference NBA Rookie of the Month for both February and March. He finished his rookie year being named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team, and finishing seventh in the rookie of the year voting.

But in a nod to how pitifully and incompetently run the Kings organization really is, despite seeing Thomas’ scoring output rise to over 20 points per game over his next two years, the Kings decided they wanted to part ways with Thomas, dealing him to the Phoenix Suns as part of a sign-and-trade deal that sent the rights of Alex Oriakhi — who has yet to play a single game in the NBA — to Sacramento.But instead of capitalizing on a colossal mistake of their own, the myopically frugal Suns traded Thomas to the Boston Celtics just seven months later, seeking to get out from the four-year, $27 million contract he signed as part of the original deal to send him to Phoenix.

MAKING THE MOVE TO BOSTON

While the Kings and Suns saw an expendable — or expensive — backup point guard option that lacked their desired height (production be damned), the the Celtics were thrilled at the idea of adding a dynamic scoring option to a carefully-assembled roster by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, which still lacked a pure scoring threat. Even though they traded away a first round pick (in addition to Marcus Thornton) to acquire Thomas, Ainge envisioned Thomas as an “instant offense” sixth-man off the bench, who could come in and provide balance to a back-court that already had a couple of promising young players in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley.

Proving that there’s a reason bad teams stay bad and good teams stay good, Ainge’s calculation paid off instantaneously, while the Kings and Suns have yet to make the postseason since making the deal. Just over two weeks after Thomas arrived in Boston, he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, and again won that honor for his efforts in the last week of the regular season, helping the Celtics clinch their first playoff spot under head coach Brad Stevens. While the Celtics were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who went on to win the Eastern Conference, Thomas gave Boston another piece to continue their rebuilding efforts. After the season was over, Thomas finished second in the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award voting (behind Lou Williams of the Toronto Raptors), even though Thomas did get 33 first-place votes.

But, it wasn’t until the 2015-2016 when Thomas officially got the league-wide recognition that he had worked so hard for. He finished the season with 22.2 points per game scoring average, while starting 79 games for the Celtics; both were high marks for his career, to date. In January of that season, he was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a reserve, making him the lowest draft pick to be named an All-Star since the NBA draft was reduced to two rounds in 1989. As the team leader in scoring and assists per game, Thomas helped guide the Celtics to their second-straight playoff appearance under Stevens — which included 48 wins in the regular season, the highest total in five seasons — though they again could not escape the first round.

OFFICIALLY A SUPERSTAR

If the 2015-2016 season was when Thomas became a star, then the 2016-2017 season is when Thomas went supernova. He finished with 28.9 a points per game scoring average (good for third place in the entire NBA), became the sixth player in the illustrious history of the Celtics to score 2,000 points in a single season, and made 245 three-point shots during the regular season (something even the legendary Larry Bird never accomplished). Through the first half of the season, he averaged a staggering 10.5 points per game in the fourth quarter, shooting 48.7 percent from the field, including 40.8 percent from three-point range. While his fourth quarter numbers did cool off after the All-Star break, he still averaged 26.8 points per game over the last two-plus months of the season.

Even with all of those accolades, Thomas’ greatest triumph might have come in a time of his greatest sadness. After the Celtics won the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference and wereIsaiah Thomas set to face the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs, Thomas learned that his sister, Chyna Thomas, had died in a car accident outside of his native Tacoma, Washington. Absolutely devastated by this tragedy, Thomas admitted to playing the series against the Bulls — which the Celtics triumphed in a 4-2 margin — in “a haze.” He averaged 23 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, scoring 33 points in Game 6 to clinch the series, but admitted to being physically and emotionally “not there” throughout the series.

After the series was over, he flew cross-country to attend her funeral, and seemingly channeled all those emotions from the loss of his sister into vengeance against the Celtics second-round opponent: the Washington Wizards. Thomas scored an astonishing 86 points in the Celtics first two games against the Wizards (of which Boston won both), including 53 points—the second-highest total in Celtics playoff history—in Game 2. He became just the fifth Celtic to score 50 or more points in a postseason game, missing John Havlicek’s team record by one point.

The playoff series between the Celtics and Wizards looks like one that could be a long — and highly entertaining — series, but regardless of how it ends, Thomas’ efforts this season cannot be understated. One can make the argument that, with his heroics in the 4th quarter of games, Thomas is somewhere in the top six or seven players who deserves to be in the discussion for the 2016-2017 Most Valuable Player award, right up there with Westbrook, Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.

All this from a guy who was taken dead last in his draft class, because he was “too short” to play in the NBA.

 

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