Monday evening was a memorable one for former Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.
“It’s always good to be back,” he said. “It feels like home.”
The 30-year-old, now a member of the Denver Nuggets, returned to TD Garden for the first time as an active player since getting traded from the Celtics in August 2017. A fiery and competitive spirit, Thomas powered Boston to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals during his two-and-a-half-season tenure, captivating fans with his fourth-quarter heroics on seemingly a nightly basis.
“I turned into a superstar here,” Thomas said Monday. “The world knew my name when I played for the Boston Celtics. I’m not saying they don’t now, but playing for the Celtics changed my whole career on and off the floor.”
“When you think about second-team All-NBA, 29 [points] a game, he had special, special years,” added coach Brad Stevens, whom Thomas calls one of his “favorite people in the world” and someone he still talks to every couple of weeks. “He just played. He always wanted to play. He was super impressive to be around on a day-to-day basis.”
As a Celtic, Thomas averaged 24.7 points per game and was known for leaving everything out on the court. In the 2017 playoffs, for example, he continued to compete after the tragic death of his sister Chyna, after extensive dental work, and after increasing pain in his right hip.
But that postseason run, cut short by three-time NBA champion LeBron James, would be the last Boston saw of Thomas in a green-and-white uniform. While rehabilitating from his hip injury over the summer, he was shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a package for superstar point guard Kyrie Irving.
“It was tough when it happened because it was out of nowhere,” Thomas said. “I was hurt. If I was able to play, it would have been easier to get through it.”
In the season-plus since the trade, Thomas said he doesn’t hold any grudges about the decision, despite once vowing he might never talk to president basketball of operations Danny Ainge again. Instead, he’s adopted a much more positive attitude toward remembering what he calls “the most fun times” of his career.
“This city is one of a kind,” Thomas said. “I’ve said it since I’ve been here. All I did was go out there and give 100 percent each and every time, and they fell in love with that. That love is genuine. There’s nothing fake about it. Anywhere I go in this city, people show real love. I just embrace it because these types of things can be taken away from you at any moment. I don’t take anything for granted.”
Thomas certainly felt the love once more during Monday night’s Celtics-Nuggets game, when he finally got his tribute video capturing some of his most special moments in Boston. With the sellout crowd on its feet, he fought back tears as he acknowledged the cheering fans. Some donned his No. 4 jersey; others proudly hoisted handwritten signs.
“You can’t really describe that feeling,” Thomas said. “My teammates felt that, and they weren’t even a part of that. It was big time. I appreciate them doing that. That meant a lot.”
In addition to his video, Thomas logged seven minutes of playing time after not getting any in Denver’s last three games. He couldn’t buy a bucket, joking “I didn’t think I missed in this building,” but his 0-for-2, minus-8 stat line didn’t detract from his overwhelmingly positive emotions.
Although the Celtics have overhauled their roster since Thomas’s final season, a handful familiar faces remain in Stevens, forward Jaylen Brown, center Al Horford, point guard Terry Rozier, and shooting guard Marcus Smart.
“Those guys are brothers to me,” Thomas said. “We’ll always be family. This whole organization.”
Wearing a pair of gold-and-green Nikes, he revealed after the game his sneakers were actually made for the 2016-17 NBA Finals. He, of course, didn’t get a chance to wear them because the Cavs eliminated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals that year, but Thomas saved several pairs — and debuted them Monday.
Moving forward, Thomas isn’t quite sure what the future holds. Nuggets coach Michael Malone recently informed him he has been bumped from the rotation — another difficult decision to digest. Thomas will become a free agent this summer, with hopes of securing “a legit opportunity.”
“This is the first time since I got hurt that I don’t feel any pain no more,” he said. “I’m blessed to be pain-free and to be able to feel like myself again. I’m just waiting on a real opportunity to just showcase what I can do.”
Wherever he ends up, there will be no shortage of self-confidence. Thomas said he knows he can still play at an All-Star and All-NBA level.
As for whether Boston is in the cards? Thomas admitted he would like to “at some point” finish his career back where it took off.
“If the opportunity presents itself, that would be everything,” he said. “It’ll make the story that much better.”
In the meantime, he’ll get to hang onto Monday’s feeling for a while.
“Right now, I need that love,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m human, so getting love and genuine love always feels good for the body, for the mind, for everything.”
Damn that was special!!!!!
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 19, 2019