Boston fostered Isaiah Thomas, and he made the Celtics his home.
He was too small to play Division I ball anywhere but in state, despite doing things on a basketball court that a host of homegrown NBA products hadn’t even achieved in the Seattle area. Too small to be taken anywhere but dead last in the draft, despite his NCAA heroics at Washington. And too small to stick with the Kings and Suns, despite averaging 20 points per 36 minutes.
It was only in Boston that Thomas realized his potential, and we were realizing it right along with him. He kept raising the bar, from Sixth Man of the Year candidate to All-Star point guard to MVP contender and then the stuff of legend that lifted his ceiling altogether — a 53-point playoff on what would have been his sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday, only hours after extensive mouth surgery and days after delivering the eulogy at her funeral.
“Fifty-three points on my sister’s birthday,” Thomas said from TD Garden on Wednesday. “That was probably the most special moment I’ve had here. It’s been a lot of great moments in Boston. My career skyrocketed here, and they gave me the biggest opportunity I’ve ever gotten. I can’t thank them enough. So, I’m — that was probably the biggest moment, because it was just the toughest time of my life, but also one of the best games I’ve ever played.”
Boston needed reasons to root for the Celtics again after trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in favor of a rebuild, and Thomas gave so much more.
“Tacoma is who I am,” he said with his customary genuineness, “but Boston is definitely in my heart and will always be some type of home for me.”
So, when Thomas debuted for the Cavaliers on Tuesday night to a rousing ovation from the Cleveland crowd, it still didn’t feel quite right. He was making those same spot-up 3-pointers, pull-up jumpers and impossible layups in wine and gold, and the city Thomas so desperately wanted to squash seven months earlier was embracing him as if he were their own.
The lingering bitterness Thomas held for Danny Ainge wasn’t helping anyone move on from the reality that the C’s traded an All-NBA talent after he gave his body to their cause, playing with a hip impingement until the labrum tore and he could barely walk off the floor in the Eastern Conference finals, and they did it to land a better player — the kind of all-world talent Thomas has always measured himself against at a height he’s been told he’ll never reach.
It was a basketball decision, plain and simple, and yet we understand Thomas deserved better. This didn’t make it any easier for Thomas, who penned a heartfelt letter to Celtics fans in which he declared, “I fell in love with Boston,” while maintaining, “I might not ever talk to Danny again.”
That left Celtics fans in an awkward spot, forced to choose between their beloved underdog who Tommy Heinsohn called “The Little Guy” and their gritty 1980s guard who helped deliver banners as a player and executive. As one team employee put it, “It’s like when your parents are arguing. You don’t want to have to choose sides. You just want them to stop fighting.”
So, when Thomas and Ainge embraced in the hallway before the Celtics hosted the Cavs, Boston had its closure. They had texted the night before.
“There’s no hard feelings to anybody in this city or anybody in this organization,” Thomas said in a pregame interview. He added, “We’re good.” And finally, the comedic relief: “The only hard feeling is Danny didn’t send me no Christmas card this year.” Air cleared. Water under the bridge.
Thomas found himself on the Jumbotron between the first and second quarters of a game the C’s already led by double digits, and the Boston crowd gave him the hero’s welcome he deserved. And he reciprocated: “This is genuine love from both sides. The fans are everything here.”
Thomas rested on the second night of a back-to-back, so there’s one bit of business to resolve — a tribute video that will play in Boston when Thomas faces the Celtics on Feb. 11, the same night they’ll retire Pierce’s jersey.
In the meantime, Boston moves on. The Celtics love Isaiah. He’ll always have a special place in their heart. But they’re with Kyrie Irving now, and they advise Thomas to turn the page, too. Because there’s a rivalry to attend.
Thomas never saw the floor against the Celtics, and he should be glad he didn’t get the chance, because his old team wiped it with his new one.
The game began with a brief tribute video to Jae Crowder during lineup introductions, capped by “Thank you Jae” flashing across the screen, which drew applause from the crowd and little reaction from him. And we were off.
The Cavs were tired. That much was obvious. The C’s were rested. That too was clear. Beyond that, though, it’s tough to take much from an early January game when Cleveland lost Kevin Love to an ankle injury and was without Thomas a night after needing his 17 points to hold off the Blazers.
Still, it was another feather in the cap of these surprising Celtics. They’ve now beaten the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets and Cavs, all at home, and if the playoffs started today, they would own home-court advantage until June.
LeBron hasn’t let the C’s off the mat much since delivering a knockout blow to the Pierce and KG era in the 2012 conference finals. So, any time they beat the seven-time reigning East champ, it feels like an accomplishment.
“For me, it’s just another opportunity for us to get better and challenge ourselves,” said Irving, careful not to suggest he had added motivation playing against his former team. “In order to be kind of in the same sentences with the great teams, you’ve got to play against the best and you’ve got to beat the best. Obviously, they don’t have all their guys, and for us we’re just getting back into what we’re trying to accomplish as a team … so I’m pretty sure we’ll have a better sense of both teams on Feb. 11.”
Everybody has that date circled, and nobody made any secret of it.
There was plenty to feel good about in this one. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were game. The Celtics placed six players in double figures, led by Terry Rozier’s 20 points off the bench. They held the NBAs third-best offense to a season-low 88 points. And Semi Ojeleye again stood his ground when LeBron lowered a shoulder into him in the post. The C’s looked young, athletic, and like a team preparing to dethrone the King this year or another.
“Back-to-back, I mean, they beat us, it’s no excuse, but with an old team it is one,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue after the 102-88 loss, “but whatever.”
Irving scored only 11 points in victory, but that’s because the Cavs threw double teams at him, leaving his teammates open, and he spread the wealth. The result was six assists, nine rebounds and a plus-18 rating in 28 minutes.
“There’s two guys on the ball, you’ve got to give the ball up,” James said when asked if he saw growth in Irving’s playmaking, not willing to give an inch to the guy who asked off his team because of him. “It’s just basketball.”
Details of Jackie MacMullan’s behind-the-scenes look at Irving’s exit from Cleveland were being confirmed in the Cavaliers locker room after the game, including the one about Kyrie not concerning himself with getting Richard Jefferson and J.R. Smith open shots in the flow of the offense, and some more notes were being added, like one about a Kyle Korver freeze-out, too.
Well-sourced whispers suggested “there was a real hatred” for LeBron by Kyrie, and James could sense it much earlier than we ever knew. All those stories over the years about their relationship-building, they were nothing more than a mirage, at least as far as an off-the-court bond was concerned.
Now, six years, two lopsided playoff series and one point guard swap later, the Celtics can finally call themselves a legit rival to LeBron and his Cavs, both in terms of talent and resentment. This is where the fun begins anew.
The C’s are coming for LeBron this year and next with waves of young talent, the addition of Gordon Hayward and another lottery pick or two — all as LeBron enters his mid-30s and decides where he’ll finish out his NBA days.
The Celtics were the team that LeBron had to overcome a decade ago, and now the roles are reversed. In between, there was Isaiah Thomas, bridging the gap between eras and granting Bostonians memories to last a lifetime.
But the MVP chants he once heard in Boston are directed at Kyrie now.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Thomas, coming to terms with the changing of the guard. “Usually they chant that for the best player on the team, so it wasn’t weird. He’s having a hell of a season, and he’s a special talent.”
After the buzzer sounded on the blowout win, Irving sought out each of his Celtics teammates. He then greeted former Cavaliers teammates Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert before finding Thomas at mid-court on the parquet floor. The two shared a moment, an embrace and a few words.
“Just mutual respect,” Thomas told me of what was said. “We’ve always respected each other, from the day we got drafted to playing on All-Star teams at the same time and things like that, so it’s just mutual respect.”
LeBron was nowhere to be found after the game. He and Kyrie didn’t say one word to each other during it, either. James had retreated to the locker room, where he offered little more than lip service to a team he’s owned for years.
“I’m always concerned about teams getting better and better, but I’m more concerned about us getting better. That’s the bigger thing,” he said, taking pains not to list Boston by name. “Washington and obviously this team right here, Miami’s trying to get better, Toronto is playing exceptional basketball right now. The East is pretty damn good this year, and right now we’re not so good … but you’ve always got to be concerned with the competition.”
When the media masses left his locker and a smattering of reporters kept chatting, LeBron added, “We’ll be all right, now that we have The Little Man.”
Yup, Boston fostered Isaiah Thomas, but he lives in Cleveland now.