Forget Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
No NBA player has meant more to his team over the past two weeks than Isaiah Thomas has to the Boston Celtics.
The 5-foot-9 point guard has been a godsend since the Celtics acquired him from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline, averaging a team-high 21.0 points over his first eight games in green and checking off nearly every box on Danny Ainge’s wish list in the process.
Backcourt scoring? Check. Ability to get to the foul line? Check. Fourth-quarter production? Check, check, check.
It’s that last item that’s truly made Thomas such an important cog in the Celtics’ machine as it grinds ever closer to what would be a wildly unexpected playoff berth.
So far, the formula has been simple: When Thomas takes over the fourth quarter, the Celtics win. When he doesn’t, they don’t.
No, really. Boston has lost just three of the eight games Thomas has played in: his debut against the Los Angeles Lakers and consecutive meetings with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers last weekend. Thomas was ejected with five minutes remaining in the first game (the Celtics went on to lose in overtime), was held to five fourth-quarter points against the Warriors and sat the final 12 minutes of Boston’s blowout loss to the Cavs.
In the Celtics’ five wins, on the other hand, he’s averaged 10.6 fourth-quarter points, including 14 in a 104-98 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. Thomas led all Celtics scorers with 27 points in the win.
“I like fourth quarters, I guess,” he said with a smile, via The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach.
Thomas’ love for pressure situations has been welcomed by his still-new Celtics teammates — a group head coach Brad Stevens can see gelling before his eyes.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s a fit,” Stevens told reporters Friday night in New Orleans. “He fits. He’s a really good player that fits really well. That usually turns out good.”
Thomas might not exactly agree with how he fits into Stevens’ system — he wants to start; the coach likes him in a reserve role, even in the absence of injured starter Avery Bradley. But Thomas has accepted his role without complaint, and he and fellow newcomer Jonas Jerebko have energized Boston’s second unit.
“I think the biggest thing is that he’s excited about trying to help our team,” Stevens said. “Anybody that’s like that with that kind of swagger that he brings, but he balances that nicely with a coachable humility that I think a lot of guys can learn from.”
That swagger is contagious.
“(Our confidence) is through the roof from within,” forward Jae Crowder said, via Celtics.com’s Marc D’Amico. “We believe in ourselves. We believe in the approach that the coaches are taking with us”
“This is like a college team,” Thomas added, via Himmelsbach. “We don’t just play with each other, we play for each other. It’s a big difference, man.”
A game and a half now separates that college team from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It has 39 days left to prove it’s ready for the Big Dance.
Thumbnail photo via Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports Images
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