Why Isaiah Thomas’ Brief But Magical Celtics Run Was Unforgettable

Thomas' ability to overcome adversity left a lasting impression on Celtics fans

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November 28, 2022

It’s a shame the brief Isaiah Thomas era with the Boston Celtics ended the way it did. Because for a span of two-plus seasons, Green Teamers couldn’t help but be entranced by the self-proclaimed “King of the Fourth.”

The 5-foot-9, 185-pound point guard, who so frequently drove into the paint and finished at the rim despite the towering big men besides him, was the perfect main character for those Celtics stories. He really was a character who could have been portrayed in some Disney Channel sports movie titled “Heart Over Height,” or something along those lines. Those teams, after all, didn’t possess the level of talent other teams in the LeBron James-led Eastern Conference did. Those teams, with then-head coach Brad Stevens, were far removed from their 2007-08 NBA championship given the franchise-altering trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets before the 2013-14 campaign.

But despite the fact the Celtics went consecutive seasons with a sub .500 records — Boston won just 25 games in Stevens’ first season with Jeff Green leading the 2013-14 group in scoring — the addition of Thomas midway through the 2014-15 campaign went a long way in the team establishing an identity the next two seasons.

In his first full season with the Celtics in 2015-16, the 26-year-old Thomas started 79 of the 82 games and averaged 22.2 points per contest. Named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career, Thomas helped Boston to a 48-34 record and fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, which surpassed expectations as oddsmakers set Boston’s preseason win total at over/under 45.5, per Basketball Reference. He then increased his scoring average by more than six points per game in 2016-17 en route to a second consecutive NBA All-Star nod as the Celtics finished first in the Eastern Conference behind a respectable 53-29 record. Again, the Celtics were far from the most talented team in the East with James alongside Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and DeMar DeRozan paired with Kyle Lowry in Toronto. Nevertheless, Thomas started all 76 of the games he played that season for the scrappy C’s and shot 46.3% from the field and 37.9% from long range. During a time when NBA finances exponentially increasing, Thomas was arguably the most valuable contract in the league.

And while it was Thomas’ demeanor on the court which first attracted the attention of Celtics fans, his perseverance during that 2016-17 campaign was what really made the City of Boston fall in love with IT. Thomas was forced to overcome difficult situations both on and off the court. The first circumstance was his hip injury initially suffered March 15, 2017. But the undersized guard returned just two games later and got back to slicing up defenses and dazzling in the paint. He averaged 27.8 points over the final 12 games of the regular season as Boston earned home court as the No. 1 seed.

The night before the Celtics’ postseason opener, though, Thomas lost his sister, Chyna Thomas, in a fatal car accident. While his status for the game on April 16, 2017, was in doubt due to the tragic event one night prior, Thomas return to Boston and played in the playoff game. Thomas scored 33 points with six assists in 38 minutes, despite it coming in a losing effort against the Chicago Bulls. It was a griping moment for Thomas, the organization and for Celtics fans. It long will be remembered by a heartbreaking scene as then-Celtics guard Avery Bradley consoled Thomas on the bench during pregame shootaround. The support of his teammates was on display during Game 1 and the ensuing days and weeks.

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, guard Avery Bradley
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

The resiliency Thomas showed in that situation was a key reason behind Green Teamers’ fast-growing admiration for Thomas, who played in all six games during the first-round series with Boston advancing after four straight wins. But that level of respect only continued to grow two weeks later, for a reason which was much different. Thomas put forth his best impression of a Boston Bruins player in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series as he lost one of his front teeth after taking an elbow from Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. After failed attempts by team doctors to reinsert the tooth in Thomas’ mouth, the Celtics star proceeded to score a game-high 33 points on 48% from the floor with nine assists in 38 minutes. Unfortunately for Thomas it was not the only injury he suffered during that series against the Wizards, which Boston won in six games.

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

Boston ultimately came up short in the Eastern Conference finals against James, Irving and the Cavaliers. Thomas missed the final three games of the postseason after reaggravating what’s proven to be a career-altering hip injury during Game 6 of the semifinal series. He played two games in the conference finals, but his last game for the Celtics included Thomas scoring just two points and going minus-32 in 18 minutes. Looking back, it brought his memorable ride with the organization to an abrupt end.

Less than three months later, in Aug. 2017, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge included Thomas, two other players and a first-round pick in a trade package for Irving. A rehabbing Thomas was set to enter the 2017-18 season, his final under contract. It took place a few months after Thomas expressed how the Celtics better “back up the Brinks truck,” referencing to the extension he hoped to sign with the organization. The injury to Thomas, however, likely halted any thoughts of an extension in the eyes of Ainge. At the time, Ainge’s trade was viewed by Green Teamers as a heartless decision, though the talent possessed by Irving made it a bit easier to overlook, especially given the C’s added Gordon Hayward and Irving in the same offseason. The Eastern Conference finalists were a better team than the season before.

Ainge’s decision to trade Thomas now might be viewed as a bullet dodged. After all, Thomas hasn’t been able to stick in any one spot and has played just 109 games since the 2017-18 season averaging 11.7 points. But it nevertheless was an unfortunate ending to a magical run for Thomas in Boston, a run Celtics fans won’t forget.

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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