fb-pixel Skip to main content

MINNEAPOLIS — Last May, as the Celtics churned through an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Wizards, Jamal Crawford could tell that his close friend Isaiah Thomas needed a lift.

The Celtics’ All-Star point guard was just a few weeks removed from the death of his younger sister in a car crash, and a week removed from requiring major dental surgery after he’d been inadvertently struck in the face.

So with the series tied at two games, Crawford flew to Boston to surprise Thomas at Game 5, “and just tell him that I love him.”

Crawford, an 18-year NBA veteran now with the Timberwolves, had seen the bond between Thomas and the city of Boston blossom from afar, and now it was in front of him, and it was startling.

Advertisement



“I saw the genuine love he had for that city,” Crawford said Thursday, before his Timberwolves fell to the Celtics. “And, this is just me talking, not him, but I think it cut him pretty deep what happened [in the offseason]. He left his heart and soul on that floor for them.”

Thomas aggravated a hip injury in the next game, then hurt it once more in the conference finals against the Cavaliers. The labral tear would sideline him for the rest of the series, and much longer than that. In August, Thomas was traded to the Cavaliers in the deal that brought Kyrie Irving to Boston.

Thomas missed the first 36 games of this season because of his hip injury, and when he returned, it was clear that his form had abandoned him, at least temporarily. He was no longer able to blow past defenders the way he had during 2½ thrilling seasons in Boston, and he made a career-low 36.1 percent of his shots and 25.3 percent of his 3-pointers over 15 games with the Cavaliers.

Advertisement



The relationship among Thomas, Cavaliers coaches, and even Cleveland media seemed tempestuous, and it was difficult for Crawford to watch. Crawford was relieved to see Thomas traded to the Lakers Feb. 8.

“I just hadn’t seen anything like it, as far as someone who was that loved, with everything that came his way the last seven or eight months,” Crawford said. “I can’t remember anything like it.

“But I’m in the situation with him. I’m rolling with him, always, because he’s a brother before the NBA, and he’ll be a brother afterward.”

The two have known each other since Thomas started traveling from his home in Tacoma, Wash., as a child to watch Crawford’s high school games in Seattle. When Thomas was at South Kent Prep in western Connecticut and Crawford played for the Knicks, a homesick Thomas would take a one-hour train ride to Crawford’s house to spend weekends with him there. In recent years, Thomas and Crawford were groomsmen in each other’s weddings.

Crawford has been in touch with Thomas constantly during this tumultuous season, offering help however he can. Mostly, he tries to impart a message.

“Just to think big picture,” Crawford said. “Obviously, when you look at what you’re going through at the moment, it always feels like the worst thing. But it’s just a chapter in a long book. So sometimes you’ve just got to go through it to really weather that storm. I just try to have him keep it positive.”

Advertisement



Thomas and Crawford are both basketball lifers. They spoke recently about how rusty they get after going just a few days without playing the game.

“So imagine going as long as he did,” Crawford said. “I could tell he wasn’t himself, and he had to work to come back and be himself. And coming back from the injury he’d come back from, there were so many layers to it. He was not only coming back from an injury, he’s coming back to a different team, a team you’ve got to learn.”

Thomas has had a bit more success with the Lakers, even if his old burst has yet to return. He has settled into a reserve role backing up rookie point guard Lonzo Ball and went into friday’s game averaging 16.1 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 39.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think it’s more his style, more playing fast, getting up and down, shooting a lot of threes and getting to the basket,” Crawford said. “That’s what Isaiah is. And I know he’s happy with the West Coast weather. We talked about that the other day.”

Last season at this time, Thomas was openly talking about how he would demand a maximum contract in free agency this summer. That hope has now vanished. And because the Lakers will miss the playoffs, Thomas has just 18 games left to show teams that he has rekindled at least some of the magic that made him so tantalizing last season.

Advertisement



“He still is a star,” Crawford said. “He’ll still have a bright future. It just sucks going through what he just went through. But I think things will turn for him.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.