The Cavs point guard — previously out seven-and-a-half months with a right hip injury — says his body already feels a lot better.
“I felt pretty good out there,” Thomas said after scoring 19 points in 22 minutes while making his first start for Cleveland on Saturday. “Coach [Tyronn Lue] and the guys put me in a position to be successful, so I just tried to make plays. But my body felt a lot better. I got more of a rhythm. Early, that rust was still there. I was missing layups and free throws and things like that. But as we got going, as my body got going, I felt a lot better.”
Thomas shot 2-for-7 for five points in the first half, then exploded for 12 points on 4-for-4 shooting in six minutes in the third quarter, helping the Cavs stretch a halftime lead of three to 20 by the start of the fourth.
“He started the game and missed four or five layups. That’s going to come,” LeBron James said. “More and more he gets hit, more and more he hits the floor and gets up, continue to get more and more confidence. That’s what I like to see. You don’t like him hitting the floor, but obviously seeing him get up. Taking that type of physicality is very key for his progression.
“Listen, he hasn’t played a basketball game in seven months … [to score 19 points after] being off seven months, that is classified as a professional scorer.”
Thomas scored an and-1 layup in the fourth quarter, absorbing contact from the Magic’s Aaron Gordon as he drove by him, and flexed both of his biceps while gritting his teeth as he sat on the floor after the whistle.
“I felt like I’m getting to where I want to be,” Thomas said of the play, which put the Cavs up 113-101 with 7:33 remaining. “I’m still a ways away from where I really want to be physically. When I do moves like that, it gives me a lot of confidence to keep being very aggressive, to get in the paint and do things like that.”
Thomas subbed out with 6:10 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavs in control by 11, with his night seemingly finished. But Orlando mounted a furious comeback, drawing to within three points with 40 seconds left. Lue then called for Thomas to re-enter the game and close things out.
“I looked at [Lue]. I said, ‘I know I can at least make some free throws if they foul,'” said Thomas, a career 87.5 percent shooter from the line who went 3-for-5 from there Saturday. “He looked at [Cavs athletic trainer] Steve [Spiro], and Steve gave him the OK. I’m just glad [Dwyane] Wade looked out for me with the air ball.”
Indeed, Thomas’ 21-foot pull-up jumper with 19.9 seconds left fell way short, but Wade scooped up the offensive rebound and put it back to give the Cavs a five-point lead.
Thomas is averaging 18 points since his addition to the lineup, and the Cavs are averaging 129 as a team — nearly 20 more than they average for the season (109.9) and more than 13 more than the league’s highest-scoring team, the Golden State Warriors (115.6).
“I think by being out there it’s unlocking another level, for sure,” Thomas said. “With me, I’m able to push the pace a little more, get the ball out of Bron’s hands and show the defense something different that they haven’t seen all year. I think with me being out there it definitely gives us another level that we can reach. I know I’m on a minute restriction now, but the whole time I’m out there, especially when I have the ball, my job is to put as much pressure on the defense as possible. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.”
The Cavs are pleased, to say the least, with how Thomas has looked.
“As you can see, he’s going to really help us,” Lue said. “Having 19 points in 21 minutes, missed a couple free throws, but once he gets his timing and everything down, he’s going to really help us. I was happy with the effort again tonight.”