BOSTON -- Danny Ainge loves Isaiah Thomas. The Boston Celtics' franchise, from ownership on down, feels the same way.
No one knows fully how tough it was for them to part with him for a package centered around Kyrie Irving, who'd made it clear that he wanted out of Cleveland.
For those who question Irving’s motives as well as the Celtics’ desire to part with a player like Thomas -- who made such a huge impact in so little time -- here’s what you need to know.
You do that deal if you're Boston because you feel that, going forward, Irving gives you a better shot at winning a title.
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You do that deal because you know that adding Irving to this culture would be a win-win for both the player and the franchise.
You do this deal because you believe Irving can elevate your franchise in a way that makes you, at a minimum, in the conversation to compete and ultimately win a championship.
Thursday’s game against Golden State?
That’s why you did the deal.
Because for all the second-guessing that went on relative to the blockbuster trade with Cleveland, the end-goal was to be positioned to win games like Thursday night’s battle with the defending NBA champion Warriors.
And making the matchup all that more enticing is that the Celtics (13-2) come in with the league’s best record -- not Golden State -- and have done it in impressive, emphatic and historic fashion.
After struggling with losses in their first two games this season, success has been all the Celtics have known since as they’ve ran off 13 straight wins -- something no team in NBA history has ever done after dropping the first two to start the season.
It has created a level of excitement and interest in the Celtics that we have not seen in years, certainly not in the Brad Stevens era.
And while there have been several pieces to this puzzle coming together so quickly, there is none more significant that the addition of Irving.
The 25-year-old has the kind of resume that speaks to his advanced playing skills. A four-time All-star and Olympic Gold medalist, he is a living, breathing example of what this Celtics franchise is about -- competing in the present, planning for the future.
Irving has the talent and experience to be around for both if he chooses.
Considering the things that he wanted in whatever team he wound up with after requesting a trade from Cleveland, Boston has been everything he asked for.
His role as a leader? Check.
A chance to compete at the highest level now? Check.
A chance to grow with the franchise and its players? Check, check.
And a coach who isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon? Check.
Let’s not forget that Irving had four different coaches in six seasons with Cavs, and each had their own ideas of how to best utilize Irving and his strengths. They all seemed to believe those strengths were limited to his ball-handling, occasion play-making and ability to score.
But in Boston, he has a coach in Stevens who has challenged him to think of his impact being much bigger than buckets.
Irving, a notoriously bad defender in Cleveland, has suddenly emerged seemingly out of nowhere to be, at a minimum, solid at that end of the floor.
Credit Stevens for putting him in situations where he can take advantage of one of his better talents that doesn’t get much attention when he’s on defense -- his footwork.
As impressive as he may be in breaking folks down with his ball-handling, a lot of that success has to do with how well he moves his feet.
Why can’t that work on defense?
So far, it has.
And then there’s Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, well-versed on Stevens’ system, just chomping at the bit to get into games. That, too, has helped Irving elevate his game from a defensive standpoint.
But for all the improvements, it always comes down to one thing -- winning games. And the Celtics are doing it better than anyone in the NBA, with Irving leading the charge.
Still, Irving knows his success, his dreams of making this change work, all come down to how he and the Celtics perform on the biggest stages -- like Thursday night’s matchup against Golden State.
It’s a chance for Boston to do more than just extend its current winning streak. It's a chance to send a strong message to the rest of the league that the Celtics may be closer to being a title contender than anyone not on their payroll had imagined.
A victory would also serve as yet another reminder why the Celtics jumped at the chance to trade for Irving, who is doing exactly what he wanted to do when he joined this franchise: Grow personally and collectively, and win at the highest levels against the best teams.
They don't get any better than defending champion Golden State.