Isaiah Thomas always knew he was a star. He’s finally found a team that agrees.
Isaiah Thomas was lying on the ground and he wasn’t in much of a hurry to get back up. He had landed hard on his elbow after taking a foul from Miami’s Dwyane Wade and also suffered what a team doctor later suggested was the deepest back bruise he had ever seen. That diagnosis, along with two weeks of forced rest and eight DNPs, would come later, but in the moment all Thomas knew was pain. Then he heard the voice of Jae Crowder.
Get up IT. We need you.
It was early March of last season and Thomas had been a Celtic for barely a month. There was already an understanding between him and his new teammates. They had an admirable spirit of togetherness, but they lacked playmakers like Thomas, whose ability to score had been a godsend. Be aggressive, they had told him, and we’ll feed off you. Thomas rolled those words around in his mind in the hotel room where he had set up a temporary home and thought to himself that his time had finally come.
Still, he was wary. His career had always been defined by the perceptions of others. Undersized to the point of absurdity, the very last pick in his draft class, Thomas had carved out a niche for himself as a scoring point guard. There was no shot he wouldn’t take and no defender he couldn’t shake, but not everyone agreed with his hellbent style.
The Sacramento Kings let him walk after three years and made a big show of signing a replacement in Darren Collison who they insisted was a better passer. The Phoenix Suns signed him late in free agency with visions of Thomas becoming the third member of a lead guard troika that also included Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. That sounded good in theory but Thomas wanted to be a starter and the chemistry was never right. All of that was how he wound up in Boston less than one season into a four-year deal.
His first few weeks with his new team had been a revelation. Thomas was piling up points (21 points per game since landing in Boston) and the Celtics had become competitive, winning five of their nine games with him in the lineup. It was all going so well and now here he was on the ground in Miami, writhing in pain with Crowder’s words echoing in his brain.
Get up IT. We need you.
Thomas got up. He made his free throw and a few minutes later he drained a huge 3-pointer that put the game out of reach. Thomas tacked on a couple more free throws for good measure to finish with 25 points and a satisfying victory. It was more than that for Thomas; it was validation that he was finally in a place where he could be himself.
“If Jae hadn’t said that I wouldn’t have got up,” Thomas says now, almost a year to the day later. “That’s how bad I was hurting. It was like, ‘They really want me to finish this game.’ It’s something I can’t explain. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
What he wanted was to be appreciated. To be allowed the freedom to score and create, but also to be empowered to lead. Now that he has been, the Celtics have emerged as one of the better teams in the conference and Thomas is an All-Star, thriving in the embrace of his teammates and playing in a city that respects his tough-minded approach.
“Being the guy in arguably the best sports city there is, you can’t ask for anything more. It’s like a dream,” he says. “You couldn’t tell anybody my story from the streets and they’d believe that this is really happening.”
It’s been an incredible basketball odyssey that has taken him from the Pacific Northwest to New England and back across the country again. One wonders, in the wake of all this success and validation, if that legendary chip on his shoulder might be dissolving ever so slightly.
“Nooooo,” Thomas says. “It’s honestly getting bigger. For some reason people think this is a fluke. I’ve never been given anything. I’ve earned everything. I’m going to make sure my team continues to win and the next thing is trying to lead a team to a championship. It sounds far-fetched right now but making the All-Star Game sounded far-fetched to some people.”
Thomas is listed at 5′9, which is a touch small even by normal human standards. Compared to the genetic freaks in his profession, it’s almost laughable. Thomas’ pat answer when questioned about his size is to calmly say he’s always been this tall, or short, and so he’s always played this way.
That underplays his impact. Only a handful of players his size have even made the NBA and most of them were change-of-pace specialists like Spud Webb and Earl Boykins. The only player who has made a comparable impact on the game at all is Calvin Murphy, who averaged 18 points per game during his Hall of Fame career. Murphy didn’t play with a 3-point line, but you can make the case that Thomas is enjoying the greatest season ever for a player his size. Regardless, what Thomas is doing this season is historic in any context.
With his stature came a need for creativity that Thomas fed by studying the game. As a child he would rush home from church and sneak into his grandparents’ house to watch the Sunday afternoon games on NBC. As he got older, he deconstructed the greats, learning a two-leg floater from Tony Parker and a one-leg variation from Steve Nash. Thomas adapted them to his game, which is full of stop-time hesitation moves, directional feints and sheer bravado. One of his favorite tactics is to attack big men by getting up into their body, thus cutting their leverage out from beneath them.
“I just go off what the defense gives me,” Thomas says. “I know that’s so cliche, but now when I’m in there, things are starting to slow down where I’m like, ‘Ok shot-blocking guy. I want to get to his body so I can knock him off balance, but if I can’t get too deep then I’ll shoot a floater.’ I’m learning I can’t always go in there and bang with the bigs. Sometimes I’ve got to give them the hesitation. Get ‘em up and then go finish under them.”
Thomas started working on his moves as far back as the fourth grade when he played on his first organized team back in Tacoma, and he’s been honing them ever since. The remarkable thing about his moves is they are essentially the same from when he was a kid. He used that bag of tricks in high school and later at the University of Washington, where he lit up the Pac-10.
“If you go look at my sixth-grade highlight tape, it’s on YouTube, you’ll see the same moves,” Thomas says. “Everybody that’s seen me play, they laugh about how good I’m doing. Even (Washington) Coach (Lorenzo) Romar, he’ll call me and be like, ‘Bro you’re doing the same move at the highest level possible.’ And it’s working.”
Thomas carries his Pacific Northwest background with him wherever he goes. In high school he made the difficult decision to move cross-country and attend a prep school in Connecticut. His grades had to improve to earn a scholarship so he wound up repeating his senior year. With the perspective of time, Thomas now says being away from home was one of the best things that ever happened to him. But in the moment, separated from family and friends, Thomas called it, “One of the most difficult times in my life.”
Fortunately, the comforts of home were only a train ride away. Seattle native Jamal Crawford was playing for the Knicks at the time. He had first encountered Thomas working out at the University of Washington as a high school junior and he invited him to play in his summer pro-am tournament. They struck a friendship and Crawford told Thomas’ parents he’d look out for their son on the East Coast.
Whenever he had the chance, Thomas boarded the train to White Plains, N.Y., to visit Crawford and fellow Seattleite Nate Robinson. He attended Knicks games and went out to dinner in the city, but mostly Thomas hung out at Crawford’s house, which provided a familiar oasis and a sympathetic ear.
The two have remained close. When Thomas got to the league, Crawford counseled him to stay patient and work hard. When he was traded to the Celtics, Crawford told him he had finally found the perfect place. “I had that vision for him, maybe even before he did,” Crawford says.
“Jamal is like family,” Thomas says. “He’s a big brother to me. That’s the difference between us and everybody else.”
The Seattle-area players are an unusually close-knit bunch. As Crawford put it, “If Isaiah has something he knows we’re all going to support him. If I have a basketball camp I know everybody’s going to support me. We totally stick together and it will always be like that.”
It goes beyond mere hometown support. They are advocates and evangelists for one another. Jason Terry stumped for Thomas’ All-Star candidacy and Jazz coach Quin Snyder was quick to counter the widely held opinion that the Celtics are a team lacking in star power. “I was surprised when I saw him play in college and shortly thereafter not very surprised,” Snyder says. “I don’t think he’s ever surprised. That’s the main thing.”
The list of Seattle-area players is growing in influence, from Snyder through Terry and Crawford to Robinson and Brandon Roy. Now it’s Thomas who is carrying the lead. There’s an individual flair to their game that’s grounded in substance and they all look out for one another.
“We’re inventing (our style),” Thomas says. “We’re laid-back but we’ve got that killer instinct. Put us on any court: YMCA, LA Fitness and we’re going to go out and play. We’ll play anywhere.”
A few days earlier, Thomas worked his way through the classrooms of the King Open School in Cambridge, charming students, delighting faculty and distributing school supplies. He settled into a desk and felt right at home with the awestruck middle school kids. Thomas does a lot of these events and he packed so many around the Christmas holiday that even the team staffers who coordinate them were amazed at his schedule.
“I love this,” he says, pulling on his Celtics hat before entering yet another classroom. “This is what it’s all about.”
Thomas had just returned from Cleveland where he had absorbed a tough loss in a close, physical contest. It was early March, the last dogged stretch of the regular season, and there was practice in a few hours and another event the next day in downtown Boston. Thomas doesn’t just want the accolades that come with his new-found notoriety. He wants all of the other responsibilities that come with it
“They expect a lot out of me, on and off the court,” Thomas says. “I’m ready for that.”
Few suspected that the Celtics had acquired a cornerstone piece of their evolving puzzle when Danny Ainge acquired Thomas at the trade deadline last February. After a hectic month that saw Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green traded out of town, all that was left were young players and future draft picks on a team that was more than 10 games under .500. The way forward seemed clear, but then Thomas became available and Ainge had a decision to make.
On the one hand, it was an easy choice. Ainge had always been interested in the guard and the cost was a mere first-round pick by way of the Cavaliers. Given Ainge’s stockpile of draft treasures, that pick was very much expendable.
On the other, adding Thomas meant they would likely improve in the standings and mess with their draft position. His acquisition was a signal that the Celtics wanted to compete in defiance of the NBA maxim that the worst place to be is not last, but somewhere in the vast middle.
The Celtics didn’t just improve, they made the playoffs despite not having much practice time to integrate their new best player. Thomas simply ran pick-and-rolls and everyone followed his lead. That got them into the postseason where they were swept by the Cavaliers, which reinforced concerns over the team’s ceiling. That skepticism has been one of the defining traits of this Celtics team, and they have turned it into a rallying cry of sorts.
“When we bring somebody in we look at all the great things they can do,” Brad Stevens says. “There’s a reason they’re here. A lot of them have also been nitpicked, and probably unfairly. You can go through our entire group and find out all the things at one point in time people thought they couldn’t do. Guys with a chip on their shoulder that want to work that have that ability, we want them to be themselves.”
In other words, the Celtics have become a team full of Isaiah Thomases. They returned for this season largely intact and have progressed from the playoff fringes to competing for home-court in the first round. With youth on their side, an enjoyable up-tempo style and an enviable locker room camaraderie, there’s a collegial atmosphere that surrounds them. They eat together on the road and group texts become epic ball-busting sessions. As Thomas puts it, “There’s no ego. There’s no beef.”
That has been aided by a subtle shift in Thomas’ play this season. He came into the season intent on becoming more of a playmaker. His style has not changed much — there is still an edge to his dashes to the basket — but it’s a controlled aggression.
Some of that is familiarity with Stevens’ system — the coach raves about Thomas’ practice habits — and how the game has slowed down for the guard. A lot of it is trust. The Celtics believe in Thomas and he no longer has to prove his worth every minute he’s on the court. Given the support he’s always craved, Thomas recognizes the responsibility that comes with it.
“If I can score every time down, I’m gonna do it. Trust me,” Thomas says. “But if the pass is there and the right play is to make a pass to somebody else, as the point guard you’ve got to learn how to do that and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it.”
Over the summer Thomas became fascinated with Bruce Lee, who also attended the University of Washington. He visited Lee’s gravesite in Seattle and began to absorb the master’s lessons, both physical and spiritual. There’s a duality to Lee that Thomas appreciates: forceful and strong, yet thoughtful and aware. “Everything he did, he saw it before it happens,” Thomas says.
You can see the influence during games. Thomas is demonstrative on the court, which belies the clear-eyed coolness with which he carries himself and the fact that he’s often a calming influence on others in the heat of competition. He has a better understanding of when to attack and when to be patient. He’s a vocal force in the locker room — his postgame quotes tend to cut through the normal cliches — but he also emits a positive energy.
“He’s not afraid of conflict or confrontation and at the same time he’s going to put his arm around you.” Stevens says. “He’s got a nice balance in that regard.”
No one play personified Thomas’ evolution with the Celtics as much as the brilliant over-the-shoulder pass he made to Crowder in the corner for a game-winning three against Milwaukee this February. It was quite literally a no-look pass, as Thomas closed his eyes just before drawing contact knowing that Crowder was waiting in the corner.
“That was the definition of our team,” Thomas says. “That play.”
If this were happening in just about any other NBA city, the Celtics’ revival would be greeted with joy, but here in Boston there is doubt. This is the franchise that flies 17 championship banners and there’s not a single one for such prosaic accomplishments as conference titles or division winners, let alone markers saluting gritty overachievers.
To many fans and commentators, the Celtics are at least one superstar player away from being taken seriously. Not surprisingly, that sentiment doesn’t sit well with Thomas, but then, what good is a challenge without critics?
“Why are they so worried about that other player? Just let us try and figure it out,” Thomas says. “See where we go this year. See what Danny does (over the summer) and then we go from there. Right now we’re not worried about that one player. We don’t put no expectations on ourselves and we don’t put no ceiling on anything. Let’s stay in the now. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about the past. Just go out and play.”
The Celtics are what Thomas always wanted and he is exactly what they needed. There’s more than enough room for everyone else to jump on his back.
After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.