Sports Nut

The Hero the NBA Needs

The Cavs and Warriors are undefeated, but these playoffs belong to Isaiah Thomas.

Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics looks on during the first quarter of his 53-point Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at TD Garden on May 2 in Boston.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The semifinal series between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards is what the Eastern Conference playoffs are all about: two flawed teams chipping and clawing at each other for the privilege of being summarily humiliated by LeBron James. So far the home team has won all four games, with the Wizards doing so far more convincingly, taking their two victories by a combined 46 points. The decisive factor in these two blowouts has been the Wizards’ ability to neutralize Boston’s 5-foot-9 offensive virtuoso Isaiah Thomas, holding him to 32 points in Games 3 and 4 after he’d torched them for 86 in the first two. If the Wizards keep a lid on Thomas for two more games, they will almost certainly win the series. Unfortunately for Washington, that if is a lot bigger than Thomas himself.

Thomas’ 53-point performance in Game 2 was legendary, transcendent, and awe-inspiring, and only partly because no other on-court moment in these desultory NBA playoffs has taken possession of any of those adjectives. Even before that, the Celtics star had endured the most difficult postseason in recent NBA history. On the eve of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, Thomas’ 22-year-old sister Chyna was killed in a single-car accident in Washington state. During that series, which the Celtics won in six games, Thomas flew back and forth across the country to be with his family, and mere hours after Boston’s series-clinching win, he delivered the eulogy at Chyna’s funeral. Then, in the opening minutes of Game 1 of the Wizards series, Thomas caught an elbow from Otto Porter that knocked out his left front tooth; he underwent emergency dental surgery (twice) prior to his 53-point outburst in Game 2. In the aftermath of the Celtics’ Game 3 loss, rumors began swirling that Thomas had a broken jaw, which prompted the Celtics to put out a statement debunking that rumor but cataloging the actual extent of Thomas’ dental woes in excruciating, gruesome detail.

Thomas plays basketball like someone is about to take the sport away from him, like the kid on the playground at dusk who talks everyone else into running it back just one more time even though he’s late for dinner. He is the greatest little-man scorer since Allen Iverson, and what he lacks in Iverson’s incandescent athleticism he makes up for in efficiency. Thomas is a gunner, but he rarely takes a bad shot; this past season, he shot 46.3 percent from the floor, 37.9 percent from three-point range, and 90.9 percent from the free throw line, all higher percentages than Iverson ever posted in a season. Most great basketball players excel at manipulating space—think Anthony Davis gobbling up the lane, LeBron soaring to the rim, Steph Curry forcing coverage 30 feet from the basket. Thomas, the smallest man on the court nearly every minute he plays, has instead tailored his game around space’s counterpart: time. He’s a blindingly quick player who gets to the basket by going fast the moment his defender slows down, or slowing down the moment his defender moves too fast. His control of his own body—and, by extension, of the bodies tasked with defending him—is thrilling to watch, and in its own way as breathtaking a display of athleticism as an off-the-backboard alley-oop. In his 53-point Game 2, Thomas scored 20 points in the fourth quarter and nine more in overtime, his baskets taking on a relentless inevitability, as if he were a diminutive Road Runner toying with a court full of broken-ankled Wile E. Coyotes. 

A native of Tacoma, Washington, and a product of the vaunted Seattle hoops scene, Thomas was the very last player selected, by the Sacramento Kings, in the 2011 NBA Draft. Thomas was then deemed disposable by both the Kings and the Phoenix Suns before being acquired by the Celtics in February 2015. From the 1980 acquisition of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for Joe Barry Carroll to the 2013 plundering of four Brooklyn Nets first-round picks for a year of Paul Pierce and the crumbling husk of Kevin Garnett, the Celtics have been on the winning side of some of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. The heist of Thomas for Marcus Thornton and the 28th pick in the 2016 draft is rapidly rising up that list.

In Boston, his ascent from spunky curiosity to full-blown folk hero has been meteoric. Not since David Ortiz in 2004 has an athlete enthralled New England to such a spectacular degree. Even earlier this season, as Thomas was dumping in wheelbarrows full of points—he averaged 28.9 points per game this regular season, the second-highest mark in team history behind Larry Bird in 1987–88—and willing an undertalented, overachieving Celtics team to the top spot in the Eastern Conference, smart NBA types wondered whether Boston might be better off trading him this summer, before having to face the possibility of signing him to a contract worth upward of $200 million. Those days are over. Right now, the likelihood of the Celtics trading Thomas this offseason feels roughly equivalent to the likelihood of the city of Boston trading the John F. Kennedy Library. 

The great “yes, but” of Thomas’ game is his defense. In 2016–17, he ranked 468th in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus—dead last in the NBA. Thomas is not simply a defensive liability in the mold of fellow offensive-minded All-Stars Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan; he is bad enough that Celtics coach Brad Stevens has attempted to build an entire scheme around keeping Thomas as far away from the ball as possible. There’s no subgenre of YouTube supercuts of Thomas not giving a shit on defense, as is the case for Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Rather, his problems on the defensive end stem from the fact that he’s a lot smaller than everyone else, and not nearly as adept at reacting to other people as he is at getting other people to react to him.

Thomas’ defensive failings have rightfully prompted a good deal of handwringing among more analytically minded NBA observers, among them CBS’s Matt Moore, who suggested in a much-discussed post back in January that Thomas’ fourth-quarter scoring exploits were canceled out by his defensive inadequacies. Even if you don’t buy that argument, it’s undeniable that his strengths and weaknesses compel a unique and somewhat perverse sort of chess. When the opposing team is on defense, its goal is to keep the ball away from him at all costs; when on offense, its goal becomes precisely the opposite.

That sounds easy enough, but the little man who got picked last has made a career out of defying the logic of professional basketball. The moment you start believing he’s going to do what you want him to do, Isaiah Thomas has you right where he wants you.