Boston Celtics: Isaiah Thomas’ return to TD Garden is the real story of tonight’s game

There are things in this sport that are truly bigger than the game of basketball itself. In tonight’s match-up against the Washington Wizards, the true story for the Boston Celtics is welcoming home a man whose legacy in this town will live on far beyond the two-and-a-half seasons he spent in green and white.

In the two and 1/10th seasons since Isaiah Thomas last wore a Boston Celtics uniform, the former All-NBA second-team guard and MVP candidate has struggled to find his way. Originally cast aside as “Mr. Irrelevant” by virtue of being the 60th pick of the 2011 draft, Thomas made himself extremely relevant in the years that followed.

His days alongside DeMarcus Cousins on the Sacramento Kings didn’t produce much team success, but it did allow Thomas to leverage himself into a four-year, $27 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. Of course, he wouldn’t last long in the desert after the team failed to find a suitable way to find a fit between Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in the rotation.

Dragic was moved to the Miami Heat, where he has been a mainstay for the last four years. Bledsoe was kept, but ultimately found his way out of Phoenix in a messy public breakup. Thomas, the point guard Jeff Hornacek used off his bench, was shipped to Boston to become a Celtics legend.

Thomas’ arrival in Boston sparked the end of the team’s rebuild, whether that was Danny Ainge‘s plan or not. They made the playoffs in 2015 as a #7 seed, and followed that up with a 48-win season in 2015-16.

In 2017, Thomas went from scoring dynamo starter to the best fourth-quarter scoring player in the entire NBA. He dropped 29 points per game and led the team to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That is superstar stuff.

Great play on the court is a great way to put yourself at the forefront of the mind of a Boston Celtics fan. Thomas found a way into the collective heart of the Boston Celtics community in only two seasons. That isn’t an easy task by any stretch.

Now look, you can say what you will about Ainge trading Thomas away before his final season under contract after he injured himself playing in the 2017 playoffs. We all know how Thomas played despite hip issues and even played the day after his sister’s untimely death and how there was little in the way of loyalty from Ainge to the man that single-handedly revived the team’s championship hopes.

However you feel about that, no one could feel good about the tough times that followed the ill-fated Thomas trade to Cleveland. The Cavaliers ultimately made the NBA Finals in 2017-18, but that was after LeBron James had half of his roster gutted due to a poor fit. Thomas, who returned mid-season to a team already mired in dysfunction, was not a good fit alongside James and saw his game suffer due to the lingering effects of his hip injury.

A trade to the Los Angeles Lakers saw him show flashes in his two month stint in Tinseltown, but overall his game was not where it was just one year prior when he was on top of the world. After another injury shortened season, Thomas had to settle for a veteran’s minimum deal with the Denver Nuggets.

No Brinks truck was backed up for a man who set the world on fire one year, only to fall off a cliff in his contract year.

Thomas’ lone season with the Denver Nuggets last season was undoubtedly the low point of his career. While injuries once again robbed him of truly reaching his potential, forcing him to miss the first portion of the season, coach Mike Malone actually voluntarily removed Thomas from the rotation. 

Career-low shooting percentages and a lack of purpose had Thomas staring at his NBA mortality in the mirror. Several news outlets questioned whether Thomas was staring at his own basketball mortality.

Boston Celtics fans held out hope though. Hope that Thomas would one day return for more than a one-day contract with the team so he could retire a Celtic. That is still the hope for a great portion of the fan-base (and I say that based due to the response to my Thomas-trade article).

Given Thomas’ recent play as the starter for the Washington Wizards, there is hope that there could be a Boston reunion before he hangs it up. At age 30, with an extensive injury history, it seems unlikely that I.T. will ever return to his 2016-17 form.

And that’s okay.

The Boston Celtics have moved on, suffering through the Kyrie Irving-led toxic years to come out on the other side with Kemba Walker and an 8-1 start to this season. They don’t need the MVP candidate that spread himself too thin and ultimately suffered for his sacrifices.

Now, Thomas would be a super-sixth man who could create his own shots for the second unit until Carsen Edwards or Tremont Waters is ready to seize that role on a contender. Given the Washing Wizards are in the midst of a rebuilding year, the writing on the wall points to his time in
“the District” being short-term.

As a veteran with a chip on his shoulder who wants to be a Celtic again, the stars could align later on this season if and when the Wizards decide to pivot to letting their young players take control of the offense. Unlike in year’s past, there appears to be a clear path to Thomas rejoining the organization and actually making a tangible impact, with Terry Rozier no longer demanding touches as the backup floor general.

After trading Isaiah Thomas away at the peak of his career and watching him fall precipitously from the mountaintop, Ainge gets to watch firsthand tonight as Thomas continues to climb his way back up the ladder as he trends towards having second most efficient shooting season since 2013. As Thomas soaks up the sights and sounds of all of the love Boston Celtics fans for the first time back as a starter (he played seven minutes and was held scoreless in his return to the TD Garden last season), Thomas will realize that now is the time to find his way back home.