Isaiah Thomas was asked about returning to Sacramento as a two-time All-Star, to play the team that “almost” didn’t want to keep him around.
Thomas corrected that quickly.
“Almost?” Thomas said. “They didn’t want me.”
The Boston Celtics did, and after a stop in Phoenix, Thomas is where he is welcomed and appreciated.
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Wednesday night was Thomas’ first appearance in Sacramento as a Celtic, as the Kings hosted Boston at Golden 1 Center. Thomas did not play the Kings in February 2015 after being traded to Boston, and last season’s home game against the Celtics was played in Mexico City.
Thomas was criticized for being too small (5-foot-9), not playing enough defense, not passing enough and shooting too much in his three seasons with the Kings. And when he became a restricted free agent in July 2014, the Kings made no real effort to retain him, and there weren’t voices in the locker room pining for his return after he averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists.
So Thomas doesn’t sit and wonder what might have been if he, DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay remained a high-scoring trio.
“Not really, because they was pushing me out of here,” Thomas said. “They didn’t like what I brought to the table. It was always, ‘he’s too small, he’s a liability on defense, he shoots too much.’ It was always something. I had to get out.”
Thomas got out in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix that netted the Kings a trade exception and the draft rights to Alex Oriakhi (who appeared with the Kings for two summer-league stints but never played in the NBA).
Now, Thomas, who was traded to Boston later that season, is what he always believed he’d become – a star in the NBA.
The Celtics have made the playoffs in each of Thomas’s first two seasons and are well on their way again, entering Wednesday second in the Eastern Conference, and Thomas is a big reason why.
He’s averaging career highs of 29.9 points (second in the NBA), 6.4 assists and has joined the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook as candidates for league MVP.
His 10.7 points per game in the fourth quarter are best in the NBA and has some calling him the “King of the Fourth Quarter.”
“I always believed I could be an MVP in this league, but for it to happen and for people to be talking about it around the world, it is a little surreal,” Thomas said. “And when I sit back and think about it, it puts me in a good place. But it’s all talk. Those other two guys who are in it are having unbelievable years. I’m just going to keep playing and keep going and trying to strive for the best.”
Thomas remains a fan favorite in Sacramento and cheers could be heard when his name was announced, which was also partially due to the large number of Celtics fans at Golden 1 Center.
Thomas is loved in Boston, too.
“I come across a lot of people in Boston who enjoy him,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “He’s played really well. The scoring and fourth-quarter stuff gets the headlines, but he’s doing a lot of other things. The right play doesn’t always go in the box score. He’s made a lot of them.”
Thomas will always have an affinity for Sacramento, which took him with the 60th and final pick in the 2011 NBA draft. But he remains motivated by doubters.
“We’re not looking at what people say he can’t do,” Stevens said. “He brought something to the table that we didn’t have: the ability to get inside the paint. He does a lot of good things (on defense). Every time he hears people say (that he can’t defend), it makes the chip on his shoulder grow. He hears all that, not defending.”
And Thomas knows he’s wanted in Boston.