BOSTON — The injured hip. The chipped tooth. The broken heart.
Seven months after Isaiah Thomas‘ unfathomable efforts in the 2017 NBA playoffs, those who were along for the ride still marvel at what the 5-foot-9 guard accomplished under the circumstances. All these months later, it’s still hard to get used to the image of him in rival colors.
One night after Thomas made his season debut with the Cavaliers, he will sit out Wednesday night when Cleveland travels to Boston on the second night of a back-to-back.
At the request of Thomas, the Celtics will not run the video tribute they prepared for his first visit. It will instead be stashed for a time when Thomas is on the court and his family is in the crowd. The Cavaliers make their final regular-season visit to Boston on Feb. 11, the day the Celtics will send Paul Pierce’s No. 34 to the rafters.
Still, it’s likely that Wednesday will provide much-needed catharsis. Boston fans who last saw Thomas limping off the court in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Cavaliers will have a chance to salute all that he gave to the franchise and celebrate what he did over two-and-a-half seasons.
“He’s still part of the Boston family,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, one of only four teammates remaining from last season’s roster. “That playoff run. Everything that he was going through, personally, and yet he was still coming out here and giving it everything he had. That meant a lot to us as a team.”
Echoed center Al Horford: “It made me respect him even more. When I got here, I knew of Isaiah. I played against him in the playoffs, good player. But after playing with him for one year, it just took me to another level with my respect level for him.”
“Isaiah is family to me, man, and he’s helped me in probably ways that he doesn’t even know. I can’t wait to welcome him back.”
Celtics F Jaylen Brown, on Isaiah Thomas’ return to Boston
Despite his short tenure, Thomas left an indelible mark on a franchise whose history makes it difficult to stake out even the tiniest bit of territory. Thomas earned the Game of Thrones-inspired nickname “King of the Fourth” for his fourth-quarter exploits throughout much of the 2016-17 season, and his single-season scoring exploits muscled him alongside the likes of Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Pierce.
In averaging 28.9 points per game during the 2016-17 season, Thomas didn’t just lead the Eastern Conference in scoring, he ranked second all-time behind only Bird (29.9 points per game in 1987-88) among Boston’s single-season scoring leaders.
Thomas also finished with the second-highest fourth-quarter scoring average in league history, putting up 9.8 points per game in the final frame (edged only by Russell Westbrook, who averaged 10 points per game in the fourth last year).
But it’s what Thomas did in the playoffs that still resonates so strongly in Boston.
The day after bidding farewell to his sister at her funeral in Tacoma, Washington, Thomas flew cross-country on a red-eye flight and scored a game-high 33 points in Game 1 of an East semifinal series against the Washington Wizards. In that same game, he had a tooth dislodged, requiring him to undergo multiple oral surgeries on playoff off days.
In Game 2 of that series, he scored 53 points against the Wizards on what would have been his sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday.
“All the sacrifices Isaiah made, all the hard work that he put in, all the leadership that he was able to bring to the organization, he meant a lot,” said Detroit Pistons guard Avery Bradley, who played alongside Thomas in Boston. “He was a teammate that I appreciated having. And I feel like he pushed everybody every single day.”
Said coach Brad Stevens: “All of us that spent every day with him, I can’t say enough positive, glowing things about Isaiah. He’s a special guy, and it’s great to see him back out on the court [Tuesday]. Certainly he’s as tough as they come.”
THOMAS’ GREEN NO. 4 jersey still speckles the crowd at Celtics games, both at TD Garden and on the road. Thomas played only 179 games for the Celtics, but he morphed into arguably the franchise’s biggest star since the end of the most recent Big Three era.
In fact, the Celtics can thank Thomas for nearly all of the All-Star-caliber talent on the roster.
Thomas wasn’t just a star in Boston; he was an ambassador. He gushed to any opposing player who would listen about his situation in Boston, praising the team for giving him a chance to finally blossom and extolling the professional nature of those who run the team.
During Thomas’ first All-Star appearance in Toronto in 2016, he quietly planted some seeds in the mind of impending free agent Horford. Recalls Horford: “We were at All-Star, and I remember just him saying how happy he was here in Boston.”
That sales pitch kicked into overdrive after the 2015-16 season. Thomas was part of Boston’s traveling contingent to pitch Horford at the start of free agency.
“Isaiah and — well, [Kelly] Olynyk, Jae Crowder, all the guys that are not here anymore — they just came in and sold me on playing here,” Horford said while shaking his head at how much has changed in the less than 18 months since he signed his max deal with Boston.
“I had a lot of respect for the guys, for how hard they played. When they played us in Atlanta [in the 2016 playoffs], they were competitive, they played hard.”
It wasn’t just their gritty style of play; it was how badly Thomas wanted to win.
“He was really trying to win a championship here and bring guys, high-quality guys,” Horford said. “Guys that could compete and that could play and that could help him.”
Fast-forward a year, and it was Thomas on the field at Fenway Park when the Celtics’ front office started its summer sales pitch to Gordon Hayward. It was Thomas and his wife, Kayla, who mingled with Hayward and his wife, Robyn, later in the day.
“IT did a tremendous job, as far as helping recruit me here to the city of Boston. He talked about Boston as a city, the fans, the organization, the coaches, the people that are involved behind the scenes,” Hayward said. “He’s just somebody that I was definitely excited about playing with. He’s an unbelievable player. He had an unbelievable year last year. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a truth.”
In the cases of both Hayward and Horford, Thomas sacrificed his own potential payday with hopes that the Celtics would land Hayward. He might have sacrificed again by playing through all the pain last season.
WHEN JAYLEN BROWN’S childhood best friend passed away unexpectedly in November, Thomas was among the first to phone with words of condolence.
“Isaiah is like my big bro,” Brown said. “Especially when my friend passed, Isaiah was one of the first people to reach out to me. I give him a lot of credit for helping me come to peace with things. Isaiah was a big help with that. Just talking and texting me. With Isaiah, it’s beyond basketball.”
For Brown, Thomas was a guide of sorts. He saw the way Thomas carried himself after his younger sister, Chyna, was killed in a single-vehicle accident in their native Washington before the playoffs last season.
“Isaiah is family to me, man, and he’s helped me in probably ways that he doesn’t even know,” Brown said. “I can’t wait to welcome him back.”
Added Brown: “He was somebody that represented the city: small, but he had fight. I think Boston, they kinda have that same type of mode. I think his legacy should be great. It should be cheered on and celebrated.”
None of this comes as a surprise to members of Boston’s front office. Inside the team’s executive offices near TD Garden, there are still Thomas-themed mementos from all the community work he did for the team.
“You saw it on the court whenever he played, but off the court, he really embraced the city and that’s why he was so loved.”
Celtics president Rich Gotham, on Isaiah Thomas’ legacy in Boston
“He’s a special guy, in every way,” team president Rich Gotham said. “Obviously, his career really took off here, and we appreciated what he did on the court. The stuff that I remember the most is the off-the-court stuff, the stuff that he would voluntarily seek out to do.”
Gotham noted how the Celtics were in the midst of an unrelenting December 2016 schedule when Thomas, inspired by Kayla’s desire to help their new neighbors, asked if he could run an event to raise money for those affected by a 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“He came to us and said, ‘I want to do something for these people, these families,'” Gotham said. “We worked with him to put something together. But that’s the thing that was different about him. He’d come to us and say, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ And that made him a special guy.
“You saw it on the court whenever he played, but off the court, he really embraced the city, and that’s why he was so loved.”
It’s also what makes seeing Thomas in Cavs’ wine and gold so difficult.
“We all want the best for IT,” Gotham said. “He was so great when he was here, and he did so much to help bring us back to prominence as a team. It’s going to be fun to see him.”
THOMAS MADE HIS season debut on Tuesday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, and showing few signs of rust, scored 17 points over 19 minutes. He didn’t have his usual explosion but showed glimpses of vintage Thomas.
His former teammates are certain he’ll thrive with the Cavaliers, even as he adjusts to being a second option alongside LeBron James after being the focal point in Boston last season.
“I just think that he’s instant offense for them,” Horford said. “You’re looking at a guy that — [the Cavaliers are] playing well but — with him on the court, they’re just going to be much better. He’s a guy that has the ability to take over games.
“And more than anything, they’re going to get a real warrior, that guy that you want in your corner because he’s just going to fight. He’s gritty.”
Bradley, who was dealt to the Pistons this offseason as part of Boston’s roster overhaul, thinks that Thomas will still have something to prove, despite playing for a team that has been a fixture in the Finals since James returned to Cleveland.
“I think he has that underdog mentality,” Bradley said. “We know that Isaiah’s going to go out there every single game with a chip on his shoulder. The Cavs, they’re already a very good team. But whenever you have somebody that plays like that every single game, I think it brings a different kind of spirit. …
“I just hope that he’s able to stay healthy and just go out there and play the way he knows how to play.”
Celtics fans, having watched former players such as Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko produce big games in their first trips back to TD Garden, are leery of what Thomas will do against Boston when he’s healthy enough to be on the court.
The fact that he’ll be confined to the sideline on Wednesday might offer a bit of comfort. This can be a celebration without any worrying about seeing Thomas’ old dominance on the court.
“I know it will be all love,” Thomas told reporters ahead of his season debut. “I keep saying that I gave that city everything I had, and they showed me genuine love back, and I think that love is going to last forever.”
Thomas’ legacy in Boston will last forever. That love might simply take a brief pause, should these two contenders meet in the playoffs.