This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 16, 2017.
With seven minutes and 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a close game, the following sequence takes place:
7:53. Player X comes off a screen to receive the ball at the wing.
7:52: He fires a three-point attempt
7:51: Realises the attempt will fall short and runs toward the rim
7:50: Grabs the rebound and attempts a putback while in air
7:49: Makes the shot with a soft touch off the glass
You would be pardoned if you thought player X was a 6 feet 6 inch NBA superstar veteran maybe with a couple of championships under his belt. You would also be very wrong on all counts.
Isaiah Thomas (named after the Hall Of Fame Detroit Pistons point guard) nearly missed making it into the NBA. Picked 60th (the last pick in the NBA Draft) by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas carried no expectations on his small shoulders. Listed among his most glaring of weaknesses were “decision-making ability” and “size”. What could anyone hope for from a 5’9” guard, when even Nate Robinson, who Thomas was compared to, was 5’11” and a journeyman at best?
Well, Thomas had other intentions.
From benchwarmer to starter
In his first season as point guard for the struggling Kings, Thomas quickly established himself as a fiery competitor who showed no mercy if the defense gave him an open lane to the basket. He quickly rose from benchwarmer to a starter, starting 37 of his team’s 65 games averaging nearly 12 points per game and five assists per game finishing seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting behind stars like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.
When the Celtics traded for Thomas in February 2015, all they expected of him was to be the off-the-bench offensive burst of energy he was at Phoenix. Thomas complied, marginally raising his scoring to 19.0 points per game for the 21 games remaining that season. The Celtics were satisfied. Thomas was not.
The subsequent summer, Thomas put in the hours, honing his skills and turning himself into even more of an offensive force breaching the 20 points per game mark (22.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. As the starting point guard for the Celtics, Thomas, along with basketball wizard coach Brad Stevens, led a team with mediocre but tough-as-nails talent to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and the playoffs before falling to the Atlanta Hawks six games. In the meanwhile, Thomas earned himself a trip to his first All-Star game as one of the 12 best players in the Eastern Conference.
This season, as the famous saying goes, is a whole other ball game.
Thomas has blossomed into an offensive threat that has left NBA defences befuddled. They are just not used to dealing with scoring guards this small. Defenders (guards) are always a step too late to catch Thomas off the dribble or taking a shot, and big men are no match for Thomas’ craftiness around the rim.
A whole other ball game
He is scoring a career high 28.2 points per game (fourth behind Harden, Davis and Westbrook) and dishing out the ball at a career high 6.2 assists per game (leading an efficient Celtics team that is tied third in the league with 24.9 apg). He leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 9.9 ppg. So if anything, he enjoys the attention defences pay to him and finds a way to thrive under pressure.
Wrap those numbers up with Thomas’s free throw percentage (90.7%, leading all players that attempt at least seven free throws a game) and Thomas has squarely placed himself in the conversation about the ten best players in the NBA.
What about the conversation for 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player?
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are putting on a show. Tallying historically great numbers consistently every night, single-handedly keeping their teams in contention and showing no signs of slowing down, both superstar guards could not make their case for MVP any stronger.
In the event of an injury to their respective superstars, both the Thunder and the Rockets would find it difficult to make the playoffs, let alone stay in contention for the Championship.
Which brings us to the Celtics.
Despite the blockbuster move to bring veteran All-Star Al Horford into the lineup, the Celtics most important player is Isaiah Thomas. The offense runs through him and he thrives with the ball in his hands, which works since none of the other Celtics need the ball to be effective and contribute. Also with the arrival of Al Horford’s dangerous inside-out game, Avery Bradley coming into his own at the offensive end, and Crowder continuing to get better, Thomas has multiple people to take the attention off him.
All this points to the fact that the Celtics are worse off without Isaiah Thomas. Maybe more so than the Rockets would be. Thomas is the Celtics floor leader, and when he is not on the floor playing point, the Celtics struggle mightily.
While his numbers are not as gaudy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, Thomas is critical to the success and championship contention for one of the top ten teams in the NBA That in itself, is sufficient to place him squarely in the conversation for the 2017 NBA MVP.
Not bad for a 5 feet 9 inch guard who almost did not make it to the NBA.