I have to confess I am one of many who didn’t give Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas a chance, at least initially. My excuse is that his namesake is my childhood idol. Isiah Lord Thomas III of the Detroit Pistons was a back-to-back champion, twelve time all-star and hall of famer who was also known as the Smiling Assassin. ‘Lord’ is also considered one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players of all time easily the best Detroit Piston ever.
No matter how unfair or even illogical the comparison, there was this feeling that the current Isaiah more popularly known as I.T. would never be as good as the ‘original’. While ‘Lord’ was already considered small at 6’1”, I.T. is even smaller at 5’9”. In a league where NBA guards are 6’4” and even more athletically gifted and fast – John Wall or super shooters like Steph Curry there’s not a lot of fans or pundits who could expect him to excel.
(Unilever Phil tapped Steph Curry to endorse Rexona in basketball crazy Philippines)
But that’s exactly what he did. These days especially with the dramatic Boston win over the Washington Wizards in Game 7 and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, I.T. is finally getting the attention and respect he deserves.
He averaged 29 points per game this season, but what’s even more impressive is when he scores. He averages 10.1 pts in the 4th quarter. From boston.com: Thomas is averaging more points in the fourth quarter than any NBA player in at least 20 years.
If he continues his 4thQ excellence he could be the most clutch point guard to ever play the game. This season he also made ALL NBA second team displacing the likes of Chris Paul and Damien Lillard. ALL NBA first team guards were MVP rivals Russell Westbrook who averaged a triple double and James Harden. (courtesy of the STARTERS)
I.T’s father James Thomas, was a long time L.A. native and Laker fan, moved to Tacoma, Washington. He made a bet with a friend with his son’s name on the line, sure that the Lakers would beat the Pistons in the finals (1989). But the birth came several months earlier than the finals and by then decided to go with it. His mother, Tina Baldtrip, insisted on the biblical spelling and adding an ‘a’, from the Pistons’ Hall of Famer’s version. Thus he was born Isaiah Jamar Thomas. He also adopted the same nickname Zeke apart from ‘Big Head’.
He took Lord’s number 11 which he used for his high school stint. His mom Tina arranged for IT to meet Isiah Thomas when he was scouting for the Knicks in University of Washington. After the Piston Great gave him an inspiring talk, the two became text mates.
One of the big influences in his game is Allen Iverson. You can see this when he uses his quickness and crossovers. They met for the first time before the start of this season. A.I. pointing at IT, “This is what makes me happy to be me. Little killers grow up to be real killers. This is it right here, this is the future”, quoted from the preseason docu BOOK OF ISAIAH.
I.T. had a stellar collegiate career in University of Washington earning the PAC-10 Freshman of the Year and ALL PAC 10 in his sophomore and junior years. In spite of this the Sacramento Kings picked him in the second round, 60th overall.
Best Record in the East
Since 2016 after being traded from Phoenix to Boston, I.T. was putting up the numbers worthy of a ‘star’ or at least enough to be the Celtics’ leader. THIS was also a break out season for I.T. making his second ALL-STAR appearance. More importantly, the Celtics were winning. Still no one actually believed they could steal the number one record in the East from the mighty Cavs. And yet they manage to do so down the wire. It came down to the last 5 games or so of the season but the Celts manage to get a 53-20 record bettering the Cavs’ 51-31.
Celtics vs Bulls and sister Chyna’s Death
Since Boston was able to garner the best regular season record in the East, most people thought they’d easily win the first round series against the Bulls. Chicago had been in disarray; Rajon Rondo had difficulty adjusting to his new team, Dwyane Wade was also not as dominant as he used to be. But then on April 15, the night before Game 1 of the series, there was tragic news for I.T. Chyna Thomas his half sister (shared the same dad James Thomas), died in a car accident near their hometown of Tacoma, Washington.
In Game 1, I.T. came out to a rousing ovation from Boston fans who appreciated their star point guard suiting up in spite of his personal loss. Dwyane Wade however, overcame the effects of father time by scoring 26 points, 11 Rebounds and 8 assists to lead the Bulls to a 106-102 win. In Game 2 Jimmy Butler and Wade both had 22pts while Rondo came alive with 14 assists for the Bulls domination: 111-97 of the Celtics. At that point fans and sports analysts started writing them off, saying they were better in the regular season than post.
I.T. by then had flown to Tacoma for his sister’s funeral and was joined by teammates. Most notably Avery Bradley who was his friend since high school. Rondo also injured his hand in Game 2. In Chicago, the Celtics seemed to get things together. Al Horford had a monster game 18 points 8 rebounds. I.T. had a strong second half with a total of 18 pts 9 assists for a Boston win 104-87 in Game 3. Celtics never looked back since then closing out the series 4-2 in Game 6.
Second Round Underdogs
Although Boston had a deeper bench, almost everyone picked the Wizards in this series. The firepower of what may be the best backcourt in the Eastern conference of John Wall and Bradley Beal would be just too much to handle for any team. And even when the series was tied at 3 a piece with each home team winning- game 7 at the TD Garden, Boston was still the underdogs. Stephen A. Smith (of ESPN) and even former Celtic guard Eddie House still chose the Wizards during a guesting at radio show The Herd.
The odds were certainly stacked against Boston even if they had home court advantage. In my mind became one of the most dramatic Playoffs Series in recent years. Yes, even more dramatic than the Cavs overcoming Warriors’ 3-1 lead in the finals last year.
It’s WAR not the Playoffs
The Boston vs Washington series was tough, physical and old school. This isn’t a competition, its war. People were getting hurt. This harkens to before the hand check rule and flagrant fouls. Although Boston won Game 1 (123-111), I.T. got an inadvertent elbow from Otto Porter knocking one front tooth out cleanly. Two more were damaged but still had to be pulled out. In spite of losing the tooth, he still managed to score 33 points. He had to endure 10 hours of dental surgery in between games.
Game 2 Miracle
Game 2 was one of those nights of destiny, where adversity becomes the fuel for an extraordinary performance. As IF the physical challenges weren’t enough Game 2 was on the birthday of Chyna Thomas, May 2. If she didn’t pass away, 2 weeks before she’d be 23 years old. This was one of those games that would be talked about long after. John Wall was unstoppable scoring 40 points and 13 assists.
The TD Garden fell to a hush when I.T. slammed his face on the hard court knowing his teeth had been knocked out the previous game. But the custom mouth guard did its job protecting his teeth although he was still experiencing some pain. But I.T. showed how clutch he really is exploding for 19 points in the 4th Q. He added another crucial 10 points in overtime for 53 points total. It was a magical Celtics win 129-119. I.T. dedicated the game to his sister but also shared in the interview that he was better able to deal with her loss in the arena with his friends and teammates than outside, realizing she was gone.
In Game 3 the series would move to Washington’s Verizon Center where they got a boost from their fans. The increasing physicality though would come to a head with Wizards Kelly Oubre’s takedown of Celts Kelly Olynyk after 2 tough screens. Olynyk on the slomos looked like he gave a body check, knocking Oubre down twice. They still appeared to be a legal pick and roll. But by the second time he did it, Oubre had enough and shoved Olynyk to the floor and also hitting the ref in the process. Oubre was immediately ejected from the game but the Wizards still won 116-89.
Wall & Beal show
The team with the home court would win: Game 4 Wizards (121-102), Game 5 Boston (123-101). Game 6 was a show of strength from the Wizards’ backcourt.
Bradley Beal topped all scorers with 33 points. But it was John Wall’s clutch 3 pointer with 3.5 seconds to go that sealed the 92-91 win. After making the last second basket Wall leapt to the scorer’s table screaming, “Not in my house, not in my house!” Thumping his chest as fans went crazy. He finished with 26 points and 8 assists.
Unlikely Heroes in Game 7
Throughout the first half it was an epic battle between John Wall, Bradley Beal and Isaiah Thomas. Each were answering jumpers, treys and lay ups until the 4th quarter when an unlikely hero emerged in Kelly Olynyk. As the defense grew tighter around I.T sometimes triple teaming him, especially on the inside, he had to pass off. He was finding a completely open Olynyk who buried trey after trey. As his confidence grew he would beat Gortat off the dribble for a lay-up. In the end he scored 16 of his 29 points in the 4th quarter as Boston wins the series 115-105.
After the game I.T. was asked about their chances against defending champs Cleveland Cavaliers. He answered, “They didn’t give us a chance in this series. They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 in the Chicago series. We got the number one seed they didn’t give us a chance. They don’t ever give us a chance and we just keep going. We don’t care what others say.”
Detroit Bad Boys
While I.T. is inevitably compared to the Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas, Olynyk also draws comparison to another ‘Bad Boy’- Bill Laimbeer. He too is a 7 foot white guy who has the ability to shoot a 3ptr. Laimbeer was once called the most hated player in the NBA, because of his flopping and knew how to use the rules to his advantage. Although Olynyk has not gotten as tough a reputation, he also had a dangerous play with Kevin Love, both grabbing a loose ball. The Cavs attributed Kevin’s shoulder being dislocated to Olynyk’s rough play.
But just like the Detroit Bad Boys, this Celtic team is gritty, tough and physical with a lot of unlikely heroes. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, are both great at defense and offense. Avery Bradley’s consistent outside shooting complements I.T.’s game. Al Horford’s scoring can only improve with more experience in the post season. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are good young players they can bank on in the coming years. Maybe they’ll win a championship or two just like the Detroit Bad Boys.
Conclusion-Future Looks Green
Whether or not the Boston Celtics win the series against the Lebron led Cavaliers is almost immaterial. Losing the series to the defending champs does not diminish their accomplishments. This has been an incredible year, where they have definitely overachieved. People will look back on this Playoff run and see this is when they made the world take notice.
What we’ve seen from Isaiah is that he has proven he is among the elite. He has helped make the Boston Celtics one of the top four teams in the league. GM Danny Ainge has a lot to smile about too when they drew the top pick in the upcoming draft.