AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — On the court where his namesake dominated, Isaiah Thomas stepped to the free-throw line in the first quarter and was greeted with a parade of boos from the sparse crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills, once a sparkling basketball venue, now a cavernous barn.
The Pistons’ personable public address announcer, John Mason, muttered Thomas’s name in disdain, as if no one with that name, except for the original, should be allowed to step foot in Motown.
Thomas was rather respectful in the first half, scoring a modest 11 points. In the second half, with the Celtics desperately needing a win against the only non-playoff opponent remaining on their schedule, Thomas commanded the respect of those Detroiters who now realize the dude with the extra “a” in his name has some game.
He tallied a season-high 34 points Wednesday night as the Celtics led for the final 39 minutes, frustrating the Pistons in an impressive 113-103 victory.
Frustration was the theme. After a first-quarter timeout, Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy dropped two expletives plainly captured by ESPN cameras after Thomas and the Celtics reserves went on a 19-2 run late in the first quarter. During Thomas’s 30 minutes on the floor, the Celtics were a plus-35, a shining example of his impact on the offense.
Thomas is just beginning to approach 100 percent after a back injury cost him eight games and appeared at times to discourage him from attacking the basket. This wasn’t a night in which Thomas punished the Pistons with his pure shooting. He converted 10 of 17 shots, 10 of 11 free throws, and had 6 assists and 3 rebounds.
But he was a maestro on the floor as the Celtics spent the evening building and losing leads. With 6:03 left in the third and a onetime Celtics’ lead of 13 points trimmed to 68-67, Thomas entered the game.
The Celtics led, 91-74, after the quarter. In his past three games, Thomas is averaging 27.3 points on 56.2 percent from the field and 42.8 percent from the 3-point line.
“I thought the first week back from the back injury, he was very tentative but in the last few games he’s really playing more like himself,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We need him to be good. We don’t need him to score 34 every night but we need him to be good. He was good [Wednesday].”
The Celtics haven’t possessed a volume backcourt scorer like Thomas in more than a decade, one who can master the pick-and-roll. Rajon Rondo was brilliant with the pick-and-roll as a passer, but he was a reluctant scorer and finisher.
Thomas doesn’t have that issue. He scores in a variety of ways. On Wednesday, he canned four 3-pointers, two midrange jumpers, and four layups, including a coast-to-coast layup where he cupped the ball with his left hand to avoid Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“In the fourth quarter they trapped a little bit on the ball screens, but other than that, I did a move and ended up at the hoop, it was kind of weird,” he said with a large grin. “I don’t know what they were messing up on but when I got into the teeth of the defense, there were about four or five times where nobody was around. That’s weird for me, usually somebody’s around trying to block my shot.”
The luxury of having a player such as Thomas, who gets to the line repeatedly, is that Stevens can allow him to dictate the offense without much intervention because he produces points. Thomas entered Wednesday 27th in the NBA in free-throw attempts. The next-highest Celtic is Brandon Bass at 79th.
“Just make simple calls and try to stay as spaced as possible,” Stevens said of the strategy when Thomas is scoring at a high rate. “Obviously I’m not going to call 12 postups in a row when he’s on the floor because you want him to have the ball a lot. Sometimes we’ll come out of the huddle and just play in space and he’ll find the four options on four different plays. That’s what a great pick-and-roll player does.”
Stevens knew it would take Thomas a few games to get untracked, and he has responded when the Celtics need his production the most.
“Each and every game I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “I’m trying to get the full range of motion back. It’s getting there. It felt good today. Sometimes I fall and it hurts a little bit more. There were two games where it was tough for me. It was a mental side of things that I had to get over from being scared of falling. That mental side is definitely done and I’m just trying to get to 100 percent.”
Thomas said with a straight face that he didn’t feel it was one of those nights where he couldn’t miss, but he still managed 34 points in 30 minutes.
“Towards the end of the game, I gave the ball up and [my teammates] were mad at me,” he said. “They were like, ‘Because they are just going to deny you. It’s going to be hard to get it back to you. Don’t give it up.’ When you have that type of confidence from your teammates, it makes it so easy for me just to go out there and play.”