DENVER — Isaiah Thomas won’t be on the court Monday night when the Celtics visit the Denver Nuggets. He’s still rehabbing his way back from a nagging hip injury, the one he worsened after he gave up his body for the Celtics in the team’s improbable run to the East finals in 2017. And yet Thomas' fingerprints will be all over the showdown Monday night between two of the best young teams in the NBA.
For Boston, the jaw-dropping swap that sent Thomas to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving delivered the sort of top-tier player that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge thought necessary for the team to make the next step toward true title contention. Still, even before that it was Thomas who made Boston a destination, his tantalizing play forcing the rest of the league to take notice and helped the Celtics recruit both Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in recent summers.
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Even as Thomas works his way back to game shape, now playing for his third team in little more than a year, he has emerged as a veteran voice for a Nuggets team off to an 8-1 start this season. Still, there is no certainty when he’ll be back on the court and what sort of player he’ll be then.
What is certain is that that many in the Celtics locker room are rooting for Thomas to get healthy and rekindle the magic that made him so special in Boston.
"IT is one of a kind and, for all of us that have been with him and spent time with him, we’re hopeful that this time when he comes back he feels great and is ready to roll,” said Stevens. "There’s no question his impact on an organization and a team is hard to match. He meant so much to me and the way he kind of captivated Boston and the years that he had there it’s amazing.
"He’s an amazing guy. We obviously still keep in touch pretty regularly, but we’ll all look forward to seeing him back out on the court.”
It’s been a rough go for Thomas since his departure from Boston. He played just 15 games for Cleveland after first returning from the hip injury, then got dealt to the Lakers as part of Cleveland’s midseason overhaul. Thomas appeared in only 17 games with Los Angeles before being allowed to walk away in free agency this summer.
Thomas, who initially expressed frustration towards Ainge after being dealt, said this past summer that he reached out to Ainge as he was pondering decisions before the 2018-19 season. The Celtics were already dealing with an overstocked roster and Denver presented a better opportunity for Thomas to eventually showcase the talents that made him an All-NBA player in Boston.
His departure still resonates with Stevens, who was as shellshocked as anyone when the trade went through, even if he understood the reasons behind the move.
"These [reporters] that cover us every day know that that was a really hard time because there was never a thought that we would possibly have traded him, and then Kyrie became available,” said Stevens. "So it was a super-unique situation and that was a tough one in all the households in Boston, but certainly the Stevens household as well. But that’s because he did so much in Boston because he was so well-liked and how much he poured his heart into the game of basketball.
"This guy works as hard and is as dedicated as anyone I’ve been around. That’s why we all are smarter than to bet against him, because when he gets back out on that court he’s going to make a heck of a difference.”
Inside the Celtics’ locker room, there are few faces that actually played with Thomas. Only Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart remain from that 2016-17 season. Though Hayward has repeatedly noted how important Thomas was in recruiting him to the team before the trade.
And those players are rooting for Thomas as well.
"That’s a guy who put his heart and soul in every game and sacrificed a lot,” said Smart. "The passing of his sister, and he comes out and goes crazy. Anybody in their right mind would have understood him taking that time out to be with his family and then mourning of his sister, but that’s the type of person IT is — a competitor.
"He came out and he played that game for her and gave it everything he had, and in the blink of an eye it’s like, where’s he at now? He’s kind of vanished, and nobody really talks about him. And this guy was, I’m talking about, one of the best players to ever do it.”
Smart doesn’t think anyone should write Thomas off.
"Oh man, IT. Man, he’s gonna be alright,” said Smart. "I think it’s good that he’s taken [the start of the] year off to really rehab that body … Just really get his mind back right, and everything that’s going on to clear his mind and get it back focused. But I definitely think this is going to justice for him and he’s going to come back strong.”
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