BOSTON -- The late-game heroics by Avery Bradley at both ends of the floor was special for Boston and, truth be told, the main reason why Celtics fans were able to leave TD Garden in a jovial mood Wednesday.
But as much as the 103-99 win over Cleveland provided a jolt of big-game confidence for the C's, no one needed a victory like this more than Isaiah Thomas.
He is the face of the franchise.
So when they fell flat in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, Thomas got much of the blame.
"Too small to come up big when it counted" became the rallying cry of his critics.
"He doesn’t do enough to make those around him better or more impactful players when it matters" was another knock against him.
But as we’ve seen this season, the narrative on who Thomas is, and what he can become, is evolving.
He isn’t just the best player on the Celtics roster anymore. He’s an MVP candidate, and not of the dark-horse variety either.
The support he’s generating has come from everywhere.
Media; fans; current players, and ex-players like former Celtic Chauncey Billups as well as Michael Jordan, who encouraged him to keep “killin’ em” . . . except when he plays Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets.
That’s all good, but ultimately a player’s greatness has to do with more than putting up big numbers.
He has to put together big games that results in big wins. He has to put together the kind of performance we saw from Isaiah Thomas on Wednesday.
Thomas was on the floor against the best team in the East, which is headlined by the most dominant force in the game (LeBron James) who teams up with an explosive scorer (Kyrie Irving, who is on the short list of elite guards in the NBA).
There was Thomas doing more than holding his own against them, leading all players with 31 points.
He was getting points at the rim, dropping 3-point bombs in the clutch, and recognizing the value of getting the ball to his teammates and allowing them to shine down the stretch.
The Isaiah Thomas on display Wednesday night was a more mature version of the one the Cavs absolutely overwhelmed a couple years ago in the playoffs.
Cleveland tossed a number of different defenses at Thomas during its four-game sweep of Boston in their 2015 first-round matchup. But Thomas has done what the great ones do: Use the heartache of defeat as a driving force towards future success.
He became a greater student of the game, working tirelessly on expanding his skills to do more and become more efficient. He changed his diet, adding more muscle to his frame to better absorb the physicality that comes with being an aggressive, always-on-the-attack offensive weapon of mass destruction.
But none of that means anything if you don’t win big games, something the Celtics have done little of this season.
Prior to Wednesday, the Celtics were just 3-8 against the top four teams in the East (Cleveland, Washington, Toronto and Atlanta).
However, Wednesday night was different on so many levels.
Although Thomas leads all NBA players in points scored in the fourth quarter (10.3), it was Jae Crowder -- not Thomas -- who scored the most fourth-quarter points for the C's on Wednesday.
And the most memorable moment down the stretch wasn’t Thomas hitting a 3-pointer, but the defense played by Bradley on Irving, who missed three of his four attempts after Bradley re-entered the game with about three minutes to play.
Thomas' growth, both as a player and a leader, is evident.
Which is why Wednesday’s victory was such a huge deal both for him and the Celtics.
It showcased him doing what he has done well all season -- score the ball and win games -- and that's exactly what you should come to expect from the face of a franchise that’s on the rise like Boston.