Celtics

Bittersweet return for Isaiah Thomas against his former Celtics team

Bittersweet return for Isaiah Thomas against his former Celtics team

BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas has proclaimed his love for the city of Boston time and time again. 

But when it comes to facing his former Celtics teammates, who have shown tremendous growth since he was traded, well, that’s another story. 

“As a competitor, I hate it,” Thomas said. “But to see them jelling how they are and playing the best basketball of any team in the NBA right now, you have to take your hats off to them. They have great players, a great coaching staff that’s putting them in position to be successful.”

The Wizards became the latest to find this out the hard way as the Celtics extended their winning streak to nine following a 140-133 victory over Washington. 

Boston (9-1) will begin a five-game Western trip on Friday night against the Golden State Warriors as they hit the road with the best record in the NBA. 

Having that kind of status was something Thomas felt could happen during his time in Boston which included him being named an All-Star in back-to-back seasons. 

But a significant hip injury and a slow recovery time derailed what was shaping up to be a promising future for the last player selected in the 2011 NBA draft. 

Now Thomas finds himself back on the grind trying to prove that the player he was in Boston, can be resurrected in Washington. 

Wednesday’s game, while not ending the way Thomas wanted, was indeed a step in the right direction. 

Thomas finished with 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting along with seven assists.

But considering how dominant a scorer he was while in Boston, Thomas knows he’ll have to string together many more games like that before he will truly be back to the player he once was. 

“It’s tough because I want it all back right now,” Thomas said. “But I can’t skip any steps. I have to take it one day at a time. I’ve been doing that. This opportunity has been good for me; coach [Scott Brooks] believes in me, my teammates believe in me and that’s all that matters.”

Thomas has been a favorite of head coach Brad Stevens since he left, and has remained close to a number of his teammates including Marcus Smart. 

“I.T. was a great teammate,” Smart recently told NBC Sports Boston. “Going through all that he has gone through, not just playing but with life, you want to see him do well, you want to see him succeed.

Smart added with a grin, “but you want to beat him, too.”

And that is what made Wednesday’s game a bittersweet one for Thomas. 

Even though Washington (2-7) has one of the worst records in the NBA, Thomas came into Wednesday’s game confident that he could play well and that Washington would find a way to get the victory. 

For most of the game, the Wizards stayed within striking distance and even played with a lead from time to time. 

In addition to Thomas, Washington also got a big game from All-Star guard Bradley Beal, who led all scorers with 44 points.  

“It felt good to be out there,” Thomas, visibly disappointed, said shortly after the loss. “But I just want to win. We didn’t get the job and that was the most important thing. But overall it felt good to be back and play some meaningful minutes.”

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Warriors, which tips off Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

Gordon Hayward's return will help Celtics the most in these four areas

BOSTON — With Gordon Hayward set to return possibly as early as Monday night’s game against Cleveland, he’ll be rejoining a squad that’s playing great basketball which has them among the NBA’s top teams.

But here’s the thing. 

Before suffering a fourth metacarpal fracture in his left hand which has been surgically repaired, Hayward and the Celtics were playing the best basketball of any team in the league. 

Can they get back to where they were with Hayward?

If they do, look for Boston to make notable strides in the following areas of play. 

OFFENSIVE OPTIONS

Now keep in mind, even when Hayward was healthy, the Celtics weren’t exactly killin’ the game with a ton of points or red-hot shooting. 

What they did more than anything else was create a pick-your-poison scenario on a game-to-game basis for defenses.

While there’s some element of that still around in his absence, there’s no debate that Hayward’s presence makes Boston a much more dangerous team to defend. 

And upon his return, the Celtics will be even more dangerous, thanks to the emergence of Jaylen Brown, who has been delivering All-Star quality production with Hayward out, along with the solid contributions Boston has been getting all season from Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. 

DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

The NBA is all about creating mismatches on the floor, so teams with the ability to switch effectively on defense will find success. The return of Hayward gives Boston another body who has the size, strength and mobility to defend multiple positions. 

When he was healthy, the Celtics' defensive rating of 101.5 was the fifth-best mark in the NBA, which was surprising when you consider they lost defensive anchors Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) in the offseason.

Boston’s defensive rating without Hayward dipped to 104.7, which still ranks seventh in the NBA. 

And while Hayward’s defensive ability has been questioned in the past, his defensive rating of 100.6 stacks up well relative to his teammates. 

WING DEPTH

If you want to win in the NBA, you better have wings — and that’s plural, not singular. And the Celtics have more than their share of talented ones, which is why the return of Hayward is so vital to the team’s overall success. 

Hayward has the ability to do many things on the floor, evident by his stats this season which touch on all the key categories. 

In addition to averaging 18.9 points per game, Hayward is also grabbing 7.1 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game.

Those are good numbers for sure. 

But what makes the Celtics so dangerous is they have not one but two others delivering similar production or better from the wing position, in Jayson Tatum (21.2 points, 7.0 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (20.0 points, 6.9 assists).

STRONGER BENCH

The Celtics’ second unit has taken its share of hits this season because they don’t score as much as some — OK, most — other reserve groups. Of course that’s partly because Boston has one of the highest-scoring starting fives in the NBA, which means limited opportunities for the backups and thus, less points. 

Because of that, it puts a greater premium on their bench players to come in and impact the game at the defensive end of the floor. 

And the return of Gordon Hayward will provide that group some much-needed depth with what will likely be the return of defensive ace Marcus Smart back to that unit which has been solid this season. 

According to hoopsstats.com, Boston has allowed opposing second units to score 33.4 points per game which is the fourth-fewest allowed in the NBA this season.  

That number will likely take a drop with Smart directing that group more than he is currently. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

Celtics injury report: Robert Williams ruled out vs. Cavaliers

The Boston Celtics will be missing some size on their bench for Monday night's game vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Robert Williams has been ruled out with left hip soreness, the team announced Sunday. Rookie Romeo Langford was also ruled out as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered during a game with the Maine Red Claws.

On the bright side for Boston, Gordon Hayward could make his long-awaited return to the court after missing the last month with a fractured left hand.

Hayward originally was slated to return from his injury around Christmas.

The Celtics (16-5) and Cavaliers (5-17) will face off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.