NEW YORK — What we are discovering as Isaiah Thomas comes clean about his badly bruised tailbone, an injury sustained when the 5-foot-9-inch sparkplug was knocked off balance in midair by Dwyane Wade and landed squarely on his backside, is that the damage was more mental than physical.
Thomas has advanced this far in his basketball career by having the utmost confidence in himself. But after missing eight games with that injury, especially in the sudden and painful manner in which it occurred, he couldn’t complete any basketball activities for more than a week. He complained of back pain, and was forced to sleep on his stomach.
So when he made his long-awaited return Wednesday against the Miami Heat, the heart was there but the body wasn’t. His legs were weak and shaky. He was hesitant to attack the basket. He even missed free throws.
His second game back was improved, although not classic Thomas, but he was good enough to lead the Celtics in scoring with 18 points in a grinding 96-92 win over the New York Knicks on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Thomas missed 9 of 13 shots, but he appeared a more confident and assured player in his 24 minutes. He dished out six assists, sank eight of his nine free throw attempts, and even banked in a 3-pointer on one of his customary pump fakes that drew a foul from Shane Larkin.
“Nah, that was nasty,” Thomas said of that first-quarter shot. “That did not say I was back. But just being able to play a little faster and decisive, that probably said I was back to playing.”
It was more than just shaking off rust. The spill Thomas took was scary. Players his size propel themselves in the air on daring drives, only to be knocked off balance by a bigger defender, and then sent to the hardwood floor. It’s a nightly occurrence, one that can shorten careers, such as Allen Iverson’s, whose fearless style robbed him of a few years of athleticism at the end.
Thomas was horrified by the fall and wasn’t exactly eager to ascend toward the rim with the same vigor.
“The biggest thing for me is mentally,” he said. “[Friday] I just went in. If it hurt, it hurt. I wasn’t scared of getting hit or falling. I went out there and just [tried] to play and it helped me. I felt a little quicker than I was [Wednesday], I could do a few of the moves that I like to do. Probably the biggest thing for me is getting my legs underneath me. My shot is still short but I made my free throws, so that was good.”
Thomas’s style of play is not for one fearful of pain or contact. It seems that opposing teams can become so frustrated with his dribble drives, that such a little man is hard to catch, that he pays for it with heavy contact. Wade not only knocked Thomas down on that fourth-quarter drive, the last of several dives at the basket during that win at Miami, he flung the ball on Thomas after he slithered through the basket and then looked down at Thomas with disdain.
He was tired of that little dude beating his defense.
“I was afraid of not having what I used to have and on Wednesday, I didn’t have anything and that was frustrating for me,” Thomas said. “Coach [Brad Stevens] has talks with me. He just wants me to be myself. Like I said, these guys put me in the position to be successful. They want me to be me and I think that’s the good thing about this team.”
Thomas proved that despite his fearlessness, savvy, and relentlessness, he is not above fear.
“It was one of the scariest moments of my life,” he said. “When I hit the ground and my body froze up and the pain that I had, I never experienced that before. Like on Wednesday night, I didn’t even want to get hit. I didn’t even want to go to the hole and somehow fall. That’s how scared I was but [Friday] I just tried to put it behind me and just play my game. I did a better job than I did on Wednesday.”
What Thomas brings to the Celtics is the ability to score off the dribble and the knack of getting fouled. In 12 games with the Celtics he has attempted 86 free throws and a whopping 297 for the season. The next-highest Celtic is Brandon Bass with 185.
So his impact is immeasurable and although the Celtics went 5-3 in his absence, his return was highly anticipated. Thomas needed a game like Wednesday’s to shake the cobwebs, acclimate himself to the speed, and overcome that fear of crashing again.
It was a ghastly display, including being ripped on a slow crossover dribble by Miami’s Tyler Johnson. He committed one turnover Friday, when he traveled in his eagerness to drive to the basket in the third quarter. But otherwise it was a clean, healthy game and an encouraging performance for a team desperate for his production in this playoff run.
“That’s a good thing to know about somebody, right?” Stevens said of Thomas’s resolve. “You don’t know that if you’ve only spent 12 games with them, how they’ll respond to a tough outing. And he responded well.”