One indicator of an NBA player’s stardom is when a performance that would seem otherworldly if crafted by others is almost met with a shrug. And this is essentially where Isaiah Thomas’s magical start to this season has left him.
On Monday night, the Celtics point guard had yet another stirring fourth quarter, scoring 17 of his 35 points in this 108-98 win over the Hornets. He made 7 of 10 shots, basked in several more rounds of “MVP” chants, and even delighted the fans who sat in the lower bowl wearing masks of his visage.
To put his latest late-game burst in perspective: Just 50 players in the NBA average more than 17 points per game, and Thomas needed just 8 minutes 30 seconds to reach that mark. And yet when it was over, few were slack-jawed or otherwise astonished. The mood was decidedly ho-hum, even though there really was nothing ho-hum about this latest display.
When Thomas walked over to the throng of reporters waiting for him in a quiet corner of the locker room after the game, he was asked if it had just been another day at the office. He smiled.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “I guess so.”
After pouring out well-deserved praise for Thomas in recent weeks, Celtics coach Brad Stevens seemed to make an effort to shift his lauding after this game, so it would be at least slightly more inclusive.
“I think it says a lot about [Thomas] and the level he’s playing at,” Stevens said, “and it says a lot about the fact that he’s got a lot of skilled guys around him that are hard to leave.”
The Celtics have certainly surrounded Thomas with floor-spacing, 3-point-bombing shooters. And unlike last year, when those shots usually thudded off of the rim, they are now going in. Boston made another 15 of them on Monday night.
“[Defenses] get frustrated, they get mad because you literally have five guys that are capable, or at least are threats, to be out there and shoot the ball,” forward Al Horford said.
So try as defenses might to stall Thomas, they understand they cannot simply swarm him with an entire team — even if that might sometimes seem like the most productive option.
Add in guard Marcus Smart’s bullying post-ups in the paint, and Thomas has an even more unique area to slice through.
Stevens insists that the Celtics are not simply standing around and watching Isaiah be Isaiah. And he also insists that Isaiah is not simply throwing caution to the rim. These plays — and baskets — are being made because they are the best options at the time they are being made.
“I truly believe that there’s going to be a fourth quarter in the very near future where [Thomas] has five assists and takes one or two shots,” Stevens said, “because that’s the right basketball play to be made.”
Of course, Stevens added, it does not hurt that the point guard is such a dynamic and relentless scorer.
Just over two weeks ago, the Celtics and Hornets appeared to be on a collision course to tussle for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. They had identical 19-14 records and similarly young, versatile, and talented lineups.
Since then, though, their fortunes have diverged. While the Celtics have maintained their hold on the No. 3 spot, Charlotte has slipped considerably. And on Monday night, they continued to move in opposite directions, as the Celtics won for the 13th time in 16 games and the Hornets lost their fifth in a row.
Horford complemented Thomas’s performance with 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists for the Celtics. Kelly Olynyk continued his strong play, tallying 15 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. After shooting 30.8 percent from the floor in December, he is now shooting 54.2 percent over seven games this month.
Olynyk was sidelined for six months after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, and while he felt fine after he returned, there was still some rust to knock off.
“It’s gonna take a little while to get back in the swing of things and get comfortable playing the game again after just being away from it for so long,” Olynyk said. “The more you play, the more you do it, the easier it’s gonna come.”
The Celtics were in control throughout Monday’s game, never surging to a large lead, but never really ceding control, either. They led for the entire second half.
With 2:43 left in the fourth, Charlotte’s Cody Zeller completed a 3-point play that pulled his team within 100-96. At the other end, Thomas was closely defended by the 7-foot Zeller in the right corner, but he faked and drained a seemingly impossible jumper over his outstretched arm.
With less than a minute left, Charlotte had two open 3-point chances that could have made it a one-possession game, but both thudded off the rim.
With 33.2 seconds left Thomas finished off Charlotte by pulling up for a 20-footer.
Maybe there soon will be other ways the Celtics dispose of an opponent during a game’s defining moments, but right now, this one does not seem to have many flaws.
Hustle play by Marcus Smart