For the Celtics, the first half of the 2014-15 season appeared to be a winding ride through basketball purgatory. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge was systematically tearing down his team so he would be able to rebuild it, and no one knew how long or how arduous that task would be.
But while sifting through possibilities and closing seemingly minor trades almost weekly, Ainge acquired two players who would become unlikely cornerstones in Boston’s rapid revival.
That December, Jae Crowder was involved in the five-player deal that sent point guard Rajon Rondo to Dallas, and in February, the Celtics gave up just Marcus Thornton and a future low first-round pick in exchange for Isaiah Thomas.
At the time of the Thomas deal, Boston was 20-31, and thoughts of a postseason berth seemed almost foolish. Crowder was so uncertain of the team’s path that after he was acquired, he even asked Celtics coach Brad Stevens to assure him that Boston was not losing intentionally.
But then Thomas and Crowder helped the Celtics win 20 of their last 31 games to secure a playoff spot. Then they led the team to 48 wins the next season and 53 the year after that, when they had the best record in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s always fun to see guys that have something to prove and are really looking to make their mark in the NBA,” Ainge said Tuesday. “Jae really didn’t have his chance because they were overloaded at his position in Dallas, and Isaiah obviously was sharing the point guard position in Phoenix. You could see it was just a real opportunity that they were ready for and that they thrived in. And it was fun to watch.”
Last August, Ainge made yet another deal, this time one of his most seismic, as he sent Crowder and Thomas to the Cavaliers as part of the trade for Kyrie Irving. On Wednesday night, Thomas and Crowder will return to TD Garden for the first time since then, when the Cavaliers face the Celtics.
Thomas has been sidelined all season with the hip injury that forced him out of last season’s playoffs. He made his debut Tuesday night against the Trail Blazers, but he will not play against the Celtics because the Cavaliers will limit him in games played on back-to-back nights.
“Obviously I’m anxious to see Isaiah get back healthy and return to being himself,” Ainge said. “But those guys meant a lot to our success when they were here. They had a great opportunity and took advantage of the opportunity.
“It’s a good lesson for all players to follow. You wait for your chance to leave a mark, and they both left a mark.”
There were some questions about how the Celtics would honor Thomas on Wednesday, but a team spokesman said the two-time All-Star asked them not to show a video tribute during the game. The spokesman said the Celtics plan to recognize Thomas at a later date.
The Cavaliers return to Boston Feb. 11, but that is also the day the Celtics will retire Paul Pierce’s No. 34.
Thomas said on Twitter Tuesday that he asked the Celtics not to play a video tribute because he wanted to wait until he was playing, and he wanted his family to be there.
“I can’t say enough positive, glowing things about Isaiah,” Stevens said. “He’s a special guy, and it’s great to see him back out on the court. Certainly, he’s as tough as they come.”
For the Celtics, though, there are more pressing matters than the returns of Thomas and Crowder. Wednesday’s game will offer a good litmus test. Yes, the Celtics are 30-10 and in first place in the conference, but there is still an understanding that the road to the Finals goes through Cleveland.
“They’ve got a guy that’s probably leading the charge for MVP in the league in LeBron, who’s been doing it now for 15 years,” Stevens said. “They’re the team to beat. Everybody knows that. And we can all speculate all the way through the season all we want to. But they’ve been the class of the East, and that’s it.”
These teams last met in the Oct. 17 season opener, a game that will be remembered mostly for Gordon Hayward’s grisly ankle injury.
Stevens said he watched video from that game this week with the sound off, because he wanted to tune out discussion about Hayward and his fateful landing.
The Celtics lost the game despite making an impressive comeback, but they were in a fog for much of the night after Hayward’s injury.
“I can’t count that one,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “We moved on with the game, but mentally that was a hard game for me personally. They won; give them credit.”
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Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye, who has missed the last four games with a sore back, completed a full practice Tuesday and could return against Cleveland.