Programming Note: On Saturday, 98.5 The Sports Hub will air the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat game from December 30, 2016, notable for Isaiah Thomas' career-high 52-point performance. Click here for the full on-air schedule.
By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Isaiah Thomas spent less than two and a half seasons with the Boston Celtics. Marcus Banks was here for longer. So were Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. Even Rick Pitino managed to hang on to Vitaly Potapenko for a greater period of time than IT spent in green.
A little over two and a half seasons have sped by since his departure. He has roamed from Cleveland to Los Angeles, Denver to Washington, a backcourt vagabond.
Before his arrival in Boston, he was a shoot-first point guard on a bad team (Sacramento) who took an ill-advised free agent deal to be the odd man out in a crowded rotation in Phoenix.
He’s been everywhere, man. But like late-career Johnny Cash hooking up with Rick Rubin, some of his most meaningful contributions to the basketball songbook were recorded with the Celtics.
Danny Ainge traded for Thomas on Feb. 19, 2015, swapping Tayshaun Prince, Marcus Thornton and a protected first round pick for Jonas Jerebko, Luigi Datome, and the 5-9 guard who would become an All-Star in each of his two full seasons here.
Boston went 14-7 with Thomas in the lineup at the end of 2015, making the playoffs. They’d improve on their regular season win total by eight games the following year, and by five the next season, the zenith of Thomas’ basketball brilliance - a campaign in which he averaged nearly 29 points and six assists on 46 percent shooting, finishing fifth in the MVP voting and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
But Thomas’ impact on those Celtics teams and their fans can’t be measured in statistics. Sure, he scored a career-high 52 points against the Heat on December 30, 2016. But if you attended, watched, or listened to that game, you felt the IT effect.
There was exhilaration in the danger. Thomas at once displayed confidence and vulnerability. Like an ant - awesomely capable of lifting 5,000 times his own weight but subject to being squished by the tiny sneaker of my fascinated two-year old - Thomas’ reign as King in the Fourth was captivating in its fragility.
Thomas spent that New Year’s Eve eve pulling up for threes with aplomb, navigating through low post tree trunks and launching layups through the forest canopy, the ball brushing high off the blackboard each time before settling safely in the net.
His emotion prominently tattooed on his sleeve, IT made 15-of-26 shots (a stellar 9-of-13 from behind the arc) and poured in 29 points in the fourth quarter of a close game. Now the author of the fourth highest-scoring performance in franchise history, Thomas truly was worthy of the robe and scepter that night, as he was many nights for the Celtics, a team labeled by some as a bridge to something bigger - a group of fun try-hards, but ultimately not championship contenders.
The point guard spent most of his Hub tenure raging against that machine, presiding over upsets, stirring comebacks, and eventually, the first deep playoff run by a Boston basketball team in five years that spring.
This, despite the untimely death of his younger sister and an ultimately debilitating hip injury.
But just as our bond with IT appeared to reach its strongest point, the Krazy Glue somehow gave way. The business of basketball, the invisible hand largely responsible for the construction and demolition of hoops legends, interfered.
Thomas was packaged in a trade that summer for Kyrie Irving, a similarly talented, but different type of competitor. The Brinks truck idling alongside his free agency prospects eventually ran out of gas.
The Celtics have been largely fine, and there are new fourth quarter heroes. Irving is gone. Your love for the team may have waxed or waned since that August day when Ainge traded his franchise player for what he'd hoped would be the next one.
But there’s no questioning the unique space that Isaiah Thomas carved into the hearts of Celtics fans in the brief two and a half years he was here.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk C's with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.