On Sunday night in Toronto, Isaiah Thomas will become the 23rd player in NBA history to represent the Boston Celtics in the All Star Game — and as you might imagine Thomas finds himself in pretty good company. Among the previous 22 All Star Celtics, 17 are in the Hall of Fame or will be there at some point in the next decade. Only Reggie Lewis (with a tragic asterisk) and Antoine Walker (only because there was no 4-point line) failed to help the Celtics win a championship. In other words, the little guy has big shoes to fill.
But the past aside, Thomas couldn’t be more deserving in the present. He’s indisputably one of the most impactful basketball players alive. This season only seven players have scored more points than Thomas. Only seven have dished out more assists. Only five have made more free throws. Only three shoot better from the line. Thomas is averaging 21.5 points and 6.6 assists this season. Do you know how many Celtics have averaged 21 and six for an entire year?
Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Larry Bird.
Thomas will also become only the second player under 5’10’’ to appear in an All Star Game. The other was Calvin Murphy, but it’s obvious which of the two had the most unlikely climb to the top. The 5’9’’ Murphy was a three-time All American in college, the 18th pick in the 1970 Draft, and played his entire 13-year career with the Rockets. The 5’9’’ Thomas was the 60th and final pick in 2011, and was dumped twice in seven months before landing in Boston. His All Star nod is one of the most remarkable developments in what has become a pretty remarkable season for the Celtics, and it will be very cool to see him out there on Sunday, representing the team and the city.
But that’s still days away, so in the meantime answer me this:
Who are the Boston Celtics?
I’ve wrestled with this annoyingly existential question for about a year now. Since last February, when Thomas officially arrived and the Celtics became these Celtics, the issue of their identity and general purpose has me feeling like young Gerald Green, just scratching my head like what the hell is going on here. Who are the Boston Celtics?
For one, the Celtics are a solid basketball team. They’re the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. And for anyone who wants to cry that “It’s still early!’’ — it’s not. This might be the All Star Break, and you might associate that with the halfway point, but the Celtics have already played 55 games. That’s two-thirds of the season. And Boston not only has the third-best record in the East but the third-best point differential, and they’re one of three teams with a winning record both at home and on the road. League-wide, Boston owns the NBA’s ninth-most efficient offense and third-best defense. They’re top 10 in turnover percentage, top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage, and top 5 in foul shooting. No matter the metric these Celtics are legit.
They’re also streaky — although calling the Celtics streaky is like calling Brad Stevens composed. These Celtics are streaky like Adam Silver is bald. They started the season 1-3. Then they won five of six. Then they lost three of four. Then they won seven of 10. Then they lost four of five. Then they won four straight. Then they lost six of seven. Then they won three straight. Then they lost two straight. Now they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games, and it feels real. Then again, so did the other times. Why is this different?
Either way the Celtics are a lovable team. If nothing else they’re endearing. They’re fun to root for. While everyone outside of Boston inherently hates most Boston teams, it would be real hard for any self-respecting NBA fan to watch these Celtics and think, “Eh, that’s not for me.’’ They play hard. They play selflessly. Of course they’re human, and there are nights when they don’t shoot well, and don’t think well, but the effort is there. The fuse is lit. This collective represents so much of what’s great about sports. They act how we want all athletes to act. They care as much as fans do, and what else can you ask for?
Yeah, but somehow the Celtics are also an expendable team. While you’re falling in love, you do so with the knowledge that Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren are currently burning up the phones like a pair of telemarketers. They’re looking to makes moves and not one lovable player on this lovable team is off limits. How crazy is that? When have you ever seen a No. 3 seed without one player-piece set in the foundation? That’s why this is so confusing, because you can’t believe in the Celtics unless you have confidence in the Celtics. In order to have confidence, you need to trust the Celtics, and understand the Celtics, and be able to answer the question: Who are the Celtics? Without that identity there is no trust. There is no understanding. And right now, with the trade deadline looming, we don’t know. What you love so much about this team today could very easily be gone tomorrow. The whole story can change, and the players you’re so hyped on at the moment become the future Adrian Griffins, David Wesleys, and JR Bremers of your basketball memory. Even more confusing, deep down you know it has to happen. Something has to happen. Ainge and Zarren are right. This team is just a little short.
And with all due respect, that train of thought brings us back to All Star Weekend, and the best possible present day answer to “Who are the Boston Celtics?’’. It goes back to that same old NBA story about the best player always winning, and a league where every team is defined, in one way or another, by their best player.
And in this case, it’s pretty perfect.
Who are the Boston Celtics?
They’re not just Isaiah Thomas’ team.
They’re Isaiah Thomas.
They’re undersized. They’re streaky. They’re scrappy. They’ll climb a mountain and beat you over the head with sheer will. They’re the ultimate underdog with the fight of rabid hippo. They’re constantly strapped with limits based on physical shortcomings that they simply choose to ignore. Then they exceed those limits, and defy those expectations, just in time for the goal line to move; for everyone to draw up a new batch of things that they’ll never accomplish — right up until they do.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter because they’re only built for the regular season. This act won’t work in the playoffs. They need to be bigger and stronger. They might sit at the table with LeBron and Steph Curry, but they’ll never beat them. They can’t. They won’t.
And they hope you keep reminding them because it only fuels their fire.
It makes them stronger.
So go ahead — tell Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics what they can’t do now and what they’ll never do next.
It’s more fun to be right with so many people to prove wrong.
Meet the 2015-16 Boston Celtics