BOSTON — Every sports fan has loved a player, but it’s rare that a player has felt the type of love that Boston Celtics fans have for Isaiah Thomas. Despite his diminutive stature — we decided to get our journalistically required reference to Thomas’ height out of the way early — Thomas shouldered the load for the Celtics in one of the more remarkable individual seasons in recent memory, leading the team to an Eastern Conference-best 53-29 record while averaging 28.9 points per game with the best fourth quarter scoring mark in the NBA during the 2016-17 campaign.
Thomas gave everything he had to the Celtics that year, playing for the team during the postseason in the immediate aftermath of his sister passing away and taking the floor despite a nagging hip injury that has turned the last year and a half of his basketball playing life into, essentially, one gigantic albatross. Watching Isaiah Thomas play basketball is supposed to be fun. Watching the recent version of Isaiah Thomas that has tried to get back to that point has, largely, not been all that enjoyable.
Currently, Thomas is lumbering on the Denver Nuggets in search of a hot streak that moderately resembles the extended run of form that made him perhaps the most exciting player in the league during his halcyon days. Everyone remembers the lightning in a bottle feeling that came with watching Thomas at his peak, but unlike fans of the NBA’s other 29 teams, the Boston faithful pined their hopes on dreams on Thomas’ ability to get the job done.
“Home,” Thomas called Boston after Monday’s game between the Nuggets and the Celtics in Beantown. “I went through a real life situation here when I lost my sister; this whole city and organization went through it with me, and I think that’s why … the love is always here but that took it to another level. I went through the worst situation you could possibly go through in life with these people and they were right there with me, everybody in the city, organization, they was right there, they went through that with me.”
Monday night was a reminder that those feelings never died — in fact, you can argue absence has made the heart grow fonder. Thomas played in TD Garden for the first time since he was moved to Cleveland as part of the package that landed the Celtics Kyrie Irving, a game that ended with a 114-105 Nuggets win. You could feel his impact before he even stepped on the floor — numerous Boston jerseys with his name and number peppered the stands, while the team aired a tribute video for him at the first stoppage in play, ostensibly because there were no plans to honor Paul Pierce at any point that evening.
Thomas checked in at the 2:42 mark of the first quarter but didn’t do much, doling out two assists while shooting 0-for-2 from the field for no points in seven minutes even though the home fans were doing everything they collectively could to will the ball through the net. That ended up being the extent of Thomas’ game time — Nuggets head coach Michael Malone pointed out that Denver went small with Thomas in the game, and when the Celtics responded by going big and finding success, he scrapped that idea. Before fans could get up to grab a drink or go to the bathroom for halftime, Thomas’ night was over.