He warned us. He said this would happen. Isaiah Thomas tried to tell everyone – coaches, general managers, reporters, teammates – that he was better than a sixth man, more than a prolific scorer and, in fact, was an absolute steal for the Kings with the No. 60 (and last) pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
But when you first looked at him, 5-foot-9 in sneakers, 185 pounds in a headband, the temptation was to pat him on the head and put him in a box, relegating him to the backup role of the valuable little prince because he was too short and too small to lead the Kings.
Guess who got the last laugh? Guess who is still laughing?
The little man who is killing it right now for the Boston Celtics hasn’t grown an inch, except in stature. If the NBA presented Oscars for fourth-quarter dramatics, the two-time All-Star would need a big rig to collect his stash. He arrives Wednesday at Golden 1 Center on such a hot streak that the Celtics and league publicists are straining to keep up.
His 10.7 scoring average in the fourth quarter leads the league, ahead of Russell Westbrook (9.2), Kyle Lowry (8.0), DeMarcus Cousins (7.7) and Lou Williams (7.7). Even more impressive: His 29.9-point average ties him with Celtics legend Larry Bird for the franchise’s season record.
And the Celtics are winning. Can’t forget that. Boston (33-18) leads the Atlantic Division and is pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference. Can’t forget this, either. Thomas, who was immensely popular during his three seasons in Sacramento, and whose relentless support and frequent appearances at City Council meetings during the relocation saga forever endeared him to Kings fans, is the king of Beantown these days.
I’ve known Isaiah since high school, but I don’t know that anybody saw this coming.
Doug Christie, Kings TV analyst, on Isaiah Thomas
“Isaiah has been a real charmer here,” said Bob Ryan, longtime Boston Globe columnist and ESPN personality. “People absolutely love him. And what’s not to love? The fact that he exceeded everyone’s expectations – everyone’s! – makes the story even sweeter. When he came here, he was Brad Stevens’ sparkplug off the bench. I was among those who subscribed to that theory.
“But, obviously, Isaiah is so much more than that. The two things I find fascinating is that when he goes to the hoop, he goes so strong. He plays through contact and can finish, make acrobatic shots with either hand. And of course he is fearless.”
Thomas, who celebrated his 28th birthday Tuesday, commanded attention the day he dipped his toe into the NBA. During the Kings’ first preseason practice in 2011-12, he scrimmaged against high-profile first-round draft pick Jimmer Fredette. The outcome, it is fair to say, was a rout.
Thomas dominated the former BYU standout with his physicality, quickness and competitiveness. A flustered Fredette could barely get off a shot and couldn’t get past Thomas off the dribble. At the other end, the player who would prove to be Geoff Petrie’s last impressive personnel heist – Thomas – repeatedly and easily drove into the lane and scored on a variety of scoops, reverses and floaters with either hand.
The ability to use both hands struck a familiar chord with Celtics basketball president Danny Ainge. During a recent conversation, he recalled the many occasions he and Bird remained after practice and engaged in deep shooting drills, sometimes while standing behind the first row of seats at the old Boston Garden. The two took turns, launching dozens of jumpers with their right hands, then with their left. (There was no game on the line; only cash.)
“Larry and I are both dominant with our left,” Ainge said. “We eat and write with our left hand. The only thing with we do with our right hand is shoot. Isaiah is a natural lefty, too, and he has a really strong right hand. I’ve watched him stand out there on the court, shooting six, seven 3s with his right hand, and making them all.”
Thomas’ tremendous ballhandling and quickness enable him to squirt between taller, thicker defenders and complement his exceptional athleticism and innate competitiveness. Again, he knew what he was long before anyone else. During his last season (2013-14) with the Kings, he started 72 games at lead guard and envisioned himself as one of the team’s primary scoring options. His unwillingness to accept a secondary role to Cousins and Rudy Gay, coupled with his tendency to dominate the ball, led to some internal friction.
Former Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, already committed to Cousins and eager to re-sign Gay, doubted the three would ever develop into a cohesive unit. He made a halfhearted attempt to re-sign Thomas, a restricted free agent, and when the Tacoma, Wash., native refused the offer ($3 million a year), the GM executed a sign-and-trade that sent Thomas to the Phoenix Suns for (gulp) a trade exception and the rights to Alex Oriakhi.
Isaiah has been a real charmer here. People absolutely love him. And what’s not to love?
Bob Ryan, Boston Globe columnist, on Isaiah Thomas
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough was next man up. He obtained Thomas before re-signing Eric Bledsoe, crowding a backcourt that included Goran Dragic. Forced to pick a starting point guard, the Suns went with Bledsoe, frustrating Thomas yet again.
But Ainge, who had tried to trade for Thomas and projected him into a backcourt with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, rescued the pint-sized guard at the trade deadline in 2015. That’s when the story begins to turn. Thomas began his Boston career as a sixth man, but eventually got what he wanted all along. The opportunity to run a team. Make plays for himself and his teammates. Lead a franchise back to the playoffs and, perhaps this year, deep into the postseason.
“I’ve known Isaiah since high school,” Kings TV analyst Doug Christie said, “but I don’t know that anybody saw this coming. His drive and desire to be great has taken him to new heights. I think he’s learning how to play the game at a higher level, and what I mean by that is that he is trusting his teammates, understanding how and when to go (score).
“Before, he had to set his feet. By that, I mean he was just ultra-aggressive. That created an All-Star. Now that he has seen that, coach Brad (Stevens) has shown him how to use his aggressiveness to help the team. Now you’ll see him find guys, then pick and choose his spots. Normally, that’s in the fourth quarter. So if you’re getting 10 points in the fourth quarter but averaging 29 a game, that means you’re sprinkling your points, keeping your other guys in the game, and then you’re closing it.”
Isaiah Thomas, the closer. No doubt he prefers that to the sixth man.
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin