December 30, 2016. That’s the night the magic truly began.
Make no mistake, Isaiah Thomas had produced some remarkable basketball before that point, earning his first NBA All-Star nod and guiding the Celtics to consecutive playoff berths after being delivered to Boston at the trade deadline 22 months earlier.
And there had been hints that something special was brewing that season, including the first 40-point game of Thomas’ career 10 days earlier during an overtime win in Memphis. But, on that Friday night in late December, an energy-sapped Celtics squad trudged home following a tough loss to the rival Cavaliers in Cleveland the night before and didn’t seem to have much left in the tank. When the Heat opened the fourth quarter on an 11-2 run to take a five-point lead, it felt like the game was slipping away. Then it happened.
Thomas erupted for a franchise record 29 fourth-quarter points, hitting an absurd six 3-pointers in the final frame, as part of a 52-point effort that delivered the Celtics a 117-114 victory.
It was one of the most absurd individual performances these eyes have seen and it set in motion one of the most magical — and still somehow underappreciated — seasons in Celtics history.
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On Monday night, now 22 months removed from his final game in a Celtics uniform, Thomas will be celebrated when he returns to TD Garden as an active player for the first time since the hip injury that ended his 2016-17 season in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While some still grumble at the idea of honoring a player with less than 2 1/2 years of service for a team, Thomas’ impact on the franchise is undeniable and very much lives on today with the roster assembled in part with his help.
Thomas carved out an indelible spot in Celtics history, particularly for that 2016-17 season, which just might have been one of the greatest stories ever in the NBA.
Start with the basics: Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game that year, the second-best total behind only Larry Bird (29.9 points per game in 1987-88) in franchise history. Given the trajectory of Thomas’ season, it’s fair to wonder if he might have shattered that mark if not for the hip injury that derailed his season — and maybe his career — in March.
During the regular season, Thomas produced 31 games of 30 points or more. Five times he scored 40 points or more. And then there was that 52-point night against Miami that sort of made you wonder if Thomas’ declaration earlier in the year about wanting to be an All-NBA member wasn’t just talk.
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Every bit of that 2016-17 season was absurd for Thomas. In July, he headlined the Celtics’ contingent that traveled to the Hamptons to pitch Kevin Durant, Thomas making friends with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady along the way. In August, Thomas met his idol Allen Iverson at a summer gala in Philadelphia and emerged with a prized autographed jersey.
A short time after that late-December outburst against Miami, Kevin Garnett proclaimed that Thomas deserved a spot in the MVP conversation (and he ultimately finished fifth behind only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James).
In early January, Thomas erupted for 20 fourth-quarter points while willing his team to a win over the Washington Wizards and he tapped his wrist while shouting, “You know what time it is,” to a frenzied TD Garden crowd. Celtics fans had already given him the Game of Thrones-inspired “King in the Fourth” nickname but the legend grew again, with Thomas routinely pointing to his wrist after big late-game baskets. Thomas averaged 32.9 points per game in January and earned Player of the Month honors in the East.
Thomas was nearly an All-Star starter (losing a fan-vote tie-breaker to DeMar DeRozan), and he set a Celtics franchise record by scoring 20-plus points in 43 straight games spanning from mid-November until late February. He earned All-NBA second team honors, achieving one of the loftier goals he had established for himself before the season.
Thomas routinely made the impossible seem possible. The Celtics’ offense was unfathomably 17.4 points per 100 possessions better during Thomas’ floor time. It was unbelievable theatre on a nightly basis, particularly for a player of his size.
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In mid-March, Thomas aggravated a hip injury in Minnesota and it hindered him down the stretch, maybe costing him that chance at Bird’s scoring record. Then, on the eve of the playoffs, Thomas’ younger sister, Chyna, died in a single-vehicle accident near Tacoma, Washington.
Playing through both injury and grief, Thomas willed the Celtics back from an 0-2 deficit in the first round against the Chicago Bulls. He trekked to Tacoma for his sister’s funeral during an offday between series, then took an overnight, cross-country flight back to Boston in time to score 33 points and lead Boston to a Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards in the East semis. During that game, Thomas had a tooth knocked out and it required hours of oral surgery to repair in the aftermath.
Playing on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday, Thomas scored 23 of his career-high 53 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Celtics gutted out Game 2 against the Wizards. Fighting his emotions, Thomas said after the game, “Today’s my sister’s birthday. She would have been 23 today. So the least I can do is go out there and play for her.”
Thomas' magic ran out soon after, his hip limiting him the rest of Boston’s playoff stay. Thomas still managed to put up 29 points and 12 assists in the Celtics’ Game 7 win over the Wizards. But he played only two games of the East Finals before being shut down for the year.
Three months later, he was traded to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.
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Those around the team still marvel at what Thomas did that season. It pains members of the Celtics organization to see how difficult things have been for Thomas in the aftermath. Even in Denver, he’s currently not in the rotation and it’s unclear if he’ll see floor time during Monday’s game.
But it won’t matter to fans. Thomas is going to be celebrated whether he plays or not — and the guess here is the Nuggets will find a way to get him on the floor. Thomas deserves a moment in the spotlight for all that he did here.
He may have truly given up his body for this franchise.
It’s not hard to see Thomas’ impact on the current roster. He recruited Al Horford and Gordon Hayward here in consecutive summers and it was his play that made Boston a destination. The way Thomas played that 2016-17 season gave Cleveland the courage to deal Irving to a chief rival.
Thomas deserves every bit of love that awaits on Monday night. His time here was short but he maximized every second of his time. That 2016-17 season deserves to be romanticized and remembered among the best seasons in Celtics history.
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