WASHINGTON — Midway through the third quarter of the Celtics’ 99-94 loss to the Wizards on Monday night, Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas faced a double-team near the sideline and had nowhere to go.
With the ball starting to squirt free, the former Celtics star called a timeout so his team could reset and start over. But Boston coach Brad Stevens thought that Thomas had lost control of the ball and therefore should not have been able to call the timeout.
Stevens was visibly upset, but Thomas remains one of his favorite players, so it was hard to stay that way. With a smile, Thomas started jokingly egging on the official, telling him to call a technical foul against Stevens, who hardly ever gets technicals.
Stevens’s countenance shifted, and then Marcus Smart, the only current Celtic who was in Boston for Thomas’s entire tenure there, stepped in and lightheartedly dragged Thomas back to his team’s bench.
“I told him to go on back to your bench,” Smart recalled with a smile later. “It was good to see him. It was good to see him out there playing. It was good to see him happy.”
Thomas, a 5-foot-9-inch point guard who was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, emerged as an unlikely superstar during his 2½ seasons with the Celtics. He was a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA selection, and he was the most essential piece of the franchise’s rapid rebuild.
When Thomas arrived, the Celtics had a losing record. When he left, they had reached the conference finals. But his final season in Boston in 2016-17 was derailed by a hip injury he suffered in the conference semifinals against the Wizards, and the subsequent years have been a struggle.
Thomas was traded to the Cavaliers in the deal that brought Kyrie Irving to Boston, and his hip injury sidelined him for half of his first season in Cleveland. When he returned, it was clear his magical powers had abandoned him, even as he insisted that the slowdown would just be temporary.
He bounced from Cleveland to the Lakers in 2017-18, and last season signed with the Nuggets before quickly being removed from the rotation because he was more of a liability than an asset.
So, this season Thomas tried again, signing a one-year deal with the Wizards. And while he is still far from being the dominant player he was with the Celtics, he is beginning to find a rhythm again.
“I feel like I can continue to get better,” Thomas said Monday. “It’s just the opportunity. The bigger the opportunity, the better I’ll play, and I’m just focused on continuing to get better each and every day. I feel really good. They don’t even ask about my hip. That’s finally out of the way. Just showing that I can play at a high level is, I think, the most important thing for me.”
Thomas started this season coming off the bench, but just three games passed before he was inserted into the starting lineup. He has not left it since. His statistics do not sparkle like they once did, but they aren’t bad, either.
He is averaging 13 points and 4.3 assists in just 23.9 minutes per game. He is shooting 41.7 percent from the field overall and a career-best 41.2 percent on 3-pointers. The issues with his defense remain, as the Wizards are allowing 7.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Thomas is on the bench. But he believes he is continuing to make progress.
He said the fact that he can now take part in every game and practice is a significant step.
“I was out of the game for a while, so just being able to work out every day, being able to work on my game and continue to get better every day is huge for me,” Thomas said. “I love practice, I guess you could say, because I’ve been out so long. I’m just happy to be able to get a good opportunity, back in the starting lineup where I feel like I belong.”
On Monday night, Thomas made 6 of 13 shots and scored 17 points as Washington pulled off an upset against the Celtics.
Thomas’s hard feelings toward Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge for trading him after everything he did for the franchise have subsided, and he said his bond with many members of the Celtics organization will be strong for the rest of his life. After Monday’s game, he was seen walking out of Capital One Arena with Celtics assistant Jerome Allen, who became one of his closest friends during his time in green.
Thomas received an unusually loud ovation before Monday’s game, in large part because about half of the fans in the arena were there to support the Celtics, and they have not forgotten him. Now, he is just focused on trying to fully recapture the form that once captivated Boston.
“I feel as close to normal as possible,” Thomas said. “Obviously there’s still rust there, but I’m getting better each and every day, and that’s all that matters.”