Championship Mike Drop
The clock ticks down under 10 seconds. The game is tied in overtime. The Staples Center in LA is packed. Jersey number two in black is still dribbling calmly in place just past half court. The people closest to him know what happens next, as he prepares to show the rest of the world what he is all about. Isaiah Thomas starts to drive hard left. He gets inside the perimeter enough to sell the drive. He gets a sliver of space and then takes a step back with a distance comparable to that between Man and the Moon itself to get behind the line. A two-point victory wasn’t good enough for him. (It ended up being called a two but I dispute it to this day). You can probably guess what happens next: swish. “COOOLLDD BLOODED!!” the announcer can be heard yelling over all the chaos.
Special Person, Special Player
That was the scene of the PAC-12 (then PAC-10) championship game on March 12, 2011, and the exact moment I became an Isaiah Thomas fan. You see, certain players bring more to basketball than just talent. IT plays with a fierce passion unmatched by most. You have to bring up the names of greats just to find somebody on his level in that regard. Then there’s that smile. You can always tell he’s having a blast on the court, and for his teammates, it’s contagious. Complement these things with an unrealistic confidence and you have the makings of a special player. He is willing to say he wants to be the best player in the NBA, and he doesn’t care if you doubt him. As a fan, you have to love a guy like that. Especially when he’s able to back it up with top-five level play, which is right where he found himself in the MVP race at the end of last season. Say that again?
Speaking of doubt, let’s fast forward from that day at the Staples Center to a few months later at the 2011 NBA draft. You’ve probably heard the story. Thomas was taken with the last pick, far beyond the point where a team can typically find someone worth a roster spot. Well, the Kings struck gold. Not only did he make the team, he averaged 11.5 ppg as a rookie. He jumped up to 20.3 ppg by his third year. Despite showing promise as a young player, the Kings weren’t satisfied and dumped him for nothing in a sign-and-trade move with the Suns. He played in Phoenix for only half of the 13-14 season. Even though he continued to play well, they doubted Thomas and his role in their long-term plans. They viewed him as the third-best point guard on the roster.
Little Big Man
When I heard the Celtics landed Thomas before the trade deadline of the 2014-2015 season, I was ecstatic. Right away I felt we had the scoring punch we needed to maybe make a run at the playoffs, and he took us there as a mid-season acquisition. But he wasn’t satisfied; he won the starting role, and in the 2016-2017 season threw it in the face of his doubters and had himself an MVP caliber season.
Some of the things he did this past season literally brought me to tears. There’s the Miami game where he notched a career- high 52 points, and we needed every last one of them to win. The King of the Fourth came to play that day, breaking Larry Bird’s franchise record with 24 in the final period.
Need a day off? The very next game, he recorded a career high 15 assists behind 29 pts, and it started to seem like he could do anything. Just two games in the line of a franchise-record 43-straight, 20-point games. And in the playoffs, when he bested his 52 with a gritty 53-point performance on a bad hip, on what would have been his sisters 23rd birthday. She passed away in a car accident weeks before. If you weren’t a fan of his after that game, you didn’t have a pulse.
He fought through that personal tragedy for the rest of the playoffs and beyond. The missing tooth game, the game winner in Atlanta, I could go on and on. We were witnessing greatness out of “the little guy” every single time he stepped on the floor. He fought so hard for everything, and he finally felt at home. He was in a good situation where his coach allowed him to be himself and it was paying dividends. Even the doubters where starting to diminish. Imagine that, it took an MVP level season for most to realize this guy is pretty darn good.
…Another, New, Era?
What happens next, well, is simply heartbreaking. As I’m writing this, I’m torn between excitement for the future and borderline depression that the hard nosed Celtics led by Thomas will never step on the floor together again. While the culture remains, the fact is this is a much different team led by a different floor general. Isaiah wears a Cavaliers jersey now. And get this; reports reveal the Cavs didn’t care much about Thomas being part of the deal, but were more enamored with Crowder and the Nets pick. Two great assets, sure, but the message was clear; we don’t think he can do it again. Definitely not after the hip injury. They even demanded more out of the deal after it was agreed upon when concern was expressed about their results from Thomas’ physical. IT’s newest team has become his latest doubter.
Is the hip a concern? Yes. Is he shorter than your roommate, who thinks he would’ve made it to the NBA if he was taller? There’s a pretty good chance. The concerns have always been logical, but does it really matter? I answered that question for myself the second the ball left his hands in the final seconds of that OT game on March 12th 2012 in the sold out Staples Center. It didn’t matter whether it went in or not; I had seen enough to know this kid had guts. The fact that it dropped was the proverbial icing on the cake.
Cleveland Doubts Thomas
Certain players, certain people, defy logic with their craft. Coincidentally enough, some people call it the “IT” factor, and the man whose initials and most popular nickname is I.T. has “IT.” Magical might be a more appropriate word than logical when talking about Thomas. He has defied logic time and time again, and you won’t find me giving any reason why he can’t do it once more. So when it was reported that Isaiah was really just the icing on the cake for the Cavs, the only reasoning I can come up with is that their front office is full of odd individuals who only eat the icing.
P.S. I wanted to help direct Cleveland here, as they will almost certainly be needing this service in the near future. You earned it IT!!
Isaiah Thomas said when asked about his looming payday next offseason that they better bring in the Brinks truck, and took it a step further with these. Here’s a clip of the shot in the 2011 Pac-10 title game. Stat line: 28-5-7. COLD. BLOODED.