Before Wednesday’s night overtime affair, Clippers point guard Chris Paul sat in the TD Garden visitors’ locker room intently studying game film of Isaiah Thomas when a Clippers staff member passed by.
“Good luck chasing around that little guy all night,’’ he joked to Paul as the point guard shook his head.
Paul’s reaction foreshadowed the problems that Thomas would pose for the visitors, as the 26-year-old posted 36 points and 11 assists in Boston’s 139-134 overtime win.
The performance produced nothing but respect from one of the league’s best point guards.
“I thought he was going to be an All-Star last year,’’ Paul told reporters in Toronto. “But I’m happy that now the rest of the league and the world gets to see how good he is.’’
“He’s great,’’ Doc Rivers added after the game. “He makes big shots. He’s tough to guard. I’ve never seen a little guy that makes – other than Spud [Webb] maybe – that makes his living in the paint. You know, most little guys have been three-point shooters, which he is. But you very rarely see one that gets in the paint and makes shots. And he does it consistently.’’
That kind of offensive production is what Thomas has been most known for throughout his five-year NBA career. Ever since being drafted by the Sacramento Kings at No. 60 in the 2011 Draft, Thomas has averaged 11 or more points each season. The 5-foot-9 point guard is now averaging career bests at 21.5 points and 6.6 assists per game so far in 2015-16, but that’s only slightly better than his numbers with Sacramento (20.3 ppg, 6.3 apg) during the 2013-14 season.
So if his scoring and passing has remained consistent, what exactly has changed for Thomas that has led to him being selected as a first-time All-Star in 2016?
When the Celtics acquired Thomas from Phoenix in February 2015, he came with a reputation for his defense, or lack thereof. His size could easily be taken advantage of by opposing offenses, and effort at that end of the floor was never considered to be his strong suit.
Those defensive issues were part of the reason Thomas started his Boston career coming off the bench. He was able to excel against second-team defenses, and starting point guards did not have the chance to expose Thomas as much on the defensive end, since they were only matched up for limited minutes.
Brad Stevens mixed up his bench strategy with Thomas in November when injuries forced the speedster into the starting five for the Celtics. In response, Thomas had step up his defense while matched up against some of the best guards in the league for 30 minutes a game on the a nightly basis. Several members of the Celtics coaching staff believe Thomas has risen to the challenge on this front, helping Boston maintain a top-3 NBA defense despite his insertion with the starters. The numbers back up that assertion as Thomas has posted a career-best rating of 106.
“Defensively, he’s stepping up,’’ assistant coach Walter McCarty told Boston.com. “I think he’s more consistent in practice with his work ethic as far as practicing hard every day and just trying to get better. He’s always stuck around to work on his offense, but he’s really made the biggest jump I think defensively. He’s trying to be in every play and not taking plays off. I think that’s where he’s grown the most.’’
Brad Stevens echoed that sentiment last month when asked where Thomas has made the biggest strides.
“He’s good at getting over screens,’’ Stevens said. “He’s good at directing the ball, he’s good at doing all those things. There are moments that he’d like to have back where he can get better at that stuff but there are moments for everybody on our team. He’s really bought into the way we’re trying to play and has done a good job on that end. To stay where we were defensively without [an injured Marcus] Smart was I think telling that a lot of other guys are defending too.’’
Clippers guard Jamal Crawford has served as a mentor to Thomas dating back to his teenage years and isn’t surprised to see the growth by Thomas on the defensive end.
“He’s a workaholic,’’ Crawford said. “I think it’s a credit to him. He never got discouraged. When he did get discouraged, he got into the gym.’’
Former teammate DeMarcus Cousins witnessed that effort firsthand during Thomas’ days in Sacramento.
“It’s not even the talent that just makes him who he is. It’s his drive,’’ Cousins said during All-Star weekend in Toronto. “That’s what separates him and makes him one of the elite smaller players in this league.’’
The ascension by Thomas to an All-Star level can also be attributed to a change in scenery, according to Crawford.
“When he came here, I told him it would be the perfect landing spot for him,’’ Crawford said. “Just from what the team needed. They had guys doing the dirty work. It’s a great fit for him, those guys and what they are doing.’’
There’s no question scoring 20 points a night for a team 10 games above .500 rather than 20 games below that mark (i.e. the Sacramento Kings) will help a player earn respect around the league. Thus, Thomas knows he has his teammates to thank for that fact as he makes his first All-Star appearance on Sunday night.
“It was a blessing in disguise,’’ Thomas said of his trade to Boston. “It definitely turned my career around. It hurt at first, because I’ve never been traded, never been in that situation, but it’s a better situation for myself here. I’m loved here and people like what I do, and I appreciate that.’’
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