On Wednesday night, Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics defeated the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 103-99 in a scintillating contest that had the hallmarks of a potential playoff matchup. While the Boston PG didn’t match his usual fourth-quarter output (a league-leading 10.3 points), he was quick to defend himself after the game, according to ESPN’s Chris Forsberg:
When a reporter asked Thomas what Cleveland did to keep him in check, a ruffled Thomas interrupted the question […] “Nobody holds me in check,” Thomas said. […] “I made plays.” he said. “I average 30 points for a reason.”
Whoa. That’s a little braggadocious.
Thomas’ comments were the subject of much discussion here at Inscriber, with the common refrain being “he hasn’t won anything yet” and “the Celtics better not lose in the first round.” They may be right, but does that make Isaiah Thomas wrong?
Not at all.
Let’s look at the evidence: Thomas is averaging 29.6 points per game this season, far and away a career high for him. Never mind that would be the highest scoring average ever for a player listed at under six feet, better than Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy’s 25.6 in 1977-78. (We’ll give Allen Iverson a break here, even though we know the real answer.) Past that, Thomas’ fourth-quarter scoring average would also be a record – and not for players of his diminutive height, but for anyone in history.
I understand the criticism of Isaiah Thomas. Even though he’s a two-time All-Star and was named to the All-Rookie team in 2012, this is, for all intents and purposes, his breakout season. Brad Stevens and the Celtics finally seem poised to make a deep playoff run, but the guys on staff here are right: they haven’t won anything yet. And the basketball gods can take a hero one season and turn him into a has-been the next. Just ask Steve Francis.
So why do I believe in Isaiah Thomas’ boast? In the 29 of his 58 games this year when he’s scored 29 or more points, he’s shot less than 40 percent only once. He’s averaged 34.3 points against current playoff teams, including 29 in two wins against Utah, the top defensive team in the league.
Overall, Boston is 22-7 when Isaiah Thomas hits his average, and 9-5 against the top 16. That’s not the sign of a guy looking to get his points over the team plan. (By the way, Thomas is averaging 5.7 assists in those 29 games, too.)
Can someone in the league check Isaiah Thomas? Yes. We know that. He knows that. But this is the NBA, the best 400-plus professional basketball players in the world, and they’re only about six weeks away from the postseason. Defense in the playoffs will be much tougher, and while Thomas’ claim, along with his body of work to this point, puts the target on his back, it will also take the focus off of his teammates and allow them, ideally, to get more open looks.
So I don’t scoff at Isaiah Thomas. I applaud him. And I welcome anyone in the NBA listening to make him eat his words.
They’ve had a tough time doing it so far.