The Celtics honored Isaiah Thomas, probably the most beloved player in franchise history to play fewer than three full seasons in green, with a pitch-perfect video Monday night that brought a prolonged cheer from the Garden crowd and left the fearless little guard, currently a Denver Nuggets afterthought, on the verge of tears.
In retrospect, it’s a blessing that he didn’t get his homecoming salute in the shadow of Paul Pierce Night last February, an unnecessary controversy at the time when he returned to town during his brief, ill-fitting time as a Cavalier. He’s not within a three-quarter-court heave of Pierce in terms of his place in Celtics lore. We know this. But any cynicism you might hear regarding the ovation he received lands somewhere between ignorant and pathetic.
Celtic fans adored him because he was an extraordinary, fun player who used his underdog status to fuel success few but Thomas himself ever believed he could achieve. Thomas, who just two seasons ago led the overachieving Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals with an overall postseason performance — most unforgettably, and nearly unfathomably too, a 53-point game on his late sister Chyna’s birthday — that was about as valiant as professional sports gets. That the fans’ love for him was reciprocated by his genuine appreciation for the city only bolstered his popularity.
Thank you IT 💚⌚️ pic.twitter.com/AuzGhSrdxM
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) March 19, 2019
But if there wasn’t a broader and more pointed meaning to the fans’ salute to Thomas, well, there should have been. The current Celtics, who are 43-28 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference after an uninspiring, erratic 114-105 loss to the Nuggets, are vastly more talented than the IT-led, 53-win Celtics of two seasons ago.
But those Celtics — who featured only Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and youngsters Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier from the current roster — played with relentless effort, relatively selfless offense, and unyielding belief in themselves when outsiders and alleged experts were skeptical, and were infinitely more likable.
For much of this season, these Celtics have played pretty much opposite of the way they played during Thomas’s last season here. Thomas wasn’t effective during his seven-minute cameo Monday night, airballing a floater, and coming up short on a three. But his struggles now are a reminder of how much he gave in 2017, playing though a hip injury that damaged his career and bank account, and just seeing him back at the Garden and fighting through the latest reason to doubt him was a reminder of more satisfying times.
This is not to suggest that the Celtics made a mistake trading him in a package for Kyrie Irving in August 2017. Irving is a vastly superior and more conventional player, one of the top dozen talents in the NBA. You make that deal a hundred times out of a hundred.
But Irving, whose feelings for Boston appear to change more often than he changes sneakers, will never know what it’s like to be beloved in Boston until he lifts his more talented team in the postseason the way Thomas did in ’17. It also would help if he’d stop being such a contradictory enigma, especially in the way he talks about leadership.
The Nuggets, who are just a game back of the Warriors for the No. 1 seed in the West, played like the ’17 Celtics Monday night. They moved the ball, knocked down open shot after open shot, and seemed to come up with every loose ball that didn’t involve a pursuit by Marcus Smart. It seems like an easy team to appreciate.
Meanwhile, the 2019 Celtics played like the 2019 Celtics. The defensive effort and results fluctuated, they missed too many layups (I’m really starting to believe Kobe Bryant sabotaged Jayson Tatum in their offseason workouts) and gave up a 29-14 Denver run late in the third quarter to near the four-minute mark in the fourth.
A late attempt at a rally faltered when Irving (30 points after starting 1 for 9 from the field), missed a three, Al Horford (20 points and good heavens does their ball movement stop when he’s not on the floor) couldn’t complete a follow-up dunk attempt, and the Nuggets sprinted the other way, resulting in a Gary Harris three and a 104-94 lead. That was that, and it might have been more disappointing if it weren’t so familiar already.
There was a palpable sentiment Monday night that the Celtics should bring back Thomas someday — something he happily talks about himself, understandable given that his time here was the best time of his career. Though Danny Ainge will never make a move for sentimental reasons — nor should he — I’ll admit I’d like to see it happen, even with doubts about whether Thomas can ever be an effective NBA player again. If he knows his role, why not?
But better than IT Part 2 would be to witness the current talent collection on this roster actually morph into a team in all the enjoyable ways. Right now, it’s hard to envision either happening.