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Over the summer, the Boston Celtics went all in pursuing free agent Kevin Durant. Not only did Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens bring their own players, they even enlisted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to help recruit. The hope was that Brady, the reigning Boston-area champion, could help convince KD to become the next Celtics great. Little did any of them know, that next great was with them the whole time.
Isaiah Thomas came to the Celtics in February of 2015 as part of a three-team deal with the Pistons and the Suns. Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 Draft, 60th overall, selected by the Sacramento Kings. The 5’9” Thomas was a revelation for a Kings team desperately in need of one, but they already had Darren Collison, so they traded Thomas to the Suns for Alex Oriakhi—the 57th pick in the 2013 Draft, he’d never play a single game in the NBA—and a trade exception. Kings gonna Kings.
The thought this past summer was that Durant could become the next Celtic in line to receive that honor. That wasn’t the first time Thomas was overlooked. It might very well be the last.
Which brings us to last night. Thomas, fresh off delivering a eulogy for his younger sister and hours of dental surgery following an impromptu on-court extraction in Game 1, dropped 53 points on the Wizards, the second-highest total in Celtics playoff history, leading the Celtics to an overtime Game 2 win. He scored 29 in the fourth quarter and overtime alone, stared down the much larger Markieff Morris, outdueled John Wall (who put up 40 points and 13 assists), and did it all on what would have been his sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday. A 2-0 series lead is not insurmountable, of course, but it may as well be with the Celtics—they’re 34-0 all-time in series where they take the first two games.
Circumstances aside, Thomas has simply been doing in the playoffs what he’s done all season long. He was 7th in PER, second in Offensive Win Shares, as the Celtics posted the best record in the East. He missed six games, in which the Celtics went 2-4. In any other season Thomas would have been a serious MVP candidate. He averaged nearly 29 points per game, scored over 2,000 points, dropped 20 in the All-Star Game. He’s been on NBA Jam fire all year long. An All-Star last season as well, his leap this year should make him a lock for Most Improved Player.
In the playoffs, all he’s done is drop 33 on the Bulls the day after his sister was killed in a car crash, then lead the top-seeded Celtics back to a six-game series win after dropping the first two at home. He lost his 3-point shooting stroke through the final three games of the first round, going a combined 3-of-26, but rediscovered it in time for the second, shooting 5-of-11 in Game 1 and 5-of-12 in Game 2. His Celtics have won six straight playoff games now, and seem destined for a showdown with the Cavaliers that few expected after going down 0-2 to the eight-seeded Bulls. And he’s apparently made longtime fan Floyd Mayweather a lot of money.
Thomas’s emergence as a top-level postseason star comes at an interesting time in Celtics history as well. Paul Pierce, the 2008 Finals MVP, announced his retirement after 18 seasons. Soon enough, Pierce’s No. 34 will rise to the Boston Garden rafters. The thought this past summer was that Durant could become the next Celtic in line to receive that honor. That wasn’t the first time Thomas was overlooked. It might very well be the last.