As soon as Isaiah Thomas found out he was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Boston Celtics, he received a text from an NBA legend. The other Isiah Thomas had a message for him.
“Take them to the playoffs,” the Hall of Famer wrote. “You’re a game and a half out of the seventh spot. Take them to the playoffs.”
Thomas admittedly didn’t know where the Celtics were in the standings prior to the trade, but from that point on, he was extremely excited and determined to make his postseason debut with Boston.
“I watched some Boston games because I’m friends with Avery Bradley, but I didn’t know their situation and where they were in the standings,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “Then, once I saw Isiah’s text, I got even more excited [about the trade] because all I want to do is make the playoffs. I started thinking, ‘Man, we got a realistic chance of making the playoffs – this year and for years to come because the East is so wide open.’”
Boston is still just one game out of the eighth seed and one and a half games out of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. And if his first five games with the Celtics are any indication, Thomas could be the piece the team needed to push them over the edge and into the postseason.
The point guard, who was traded for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick, has played just five games (119 minutes) with the Celtics yet he has already scored 109 points off of the team’s bench. He’s currently averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds, fitting right in as Boston’s sixth man. The NBA has taken notice of his productivity, giving Thomas the Player of the Week award for games played Feb. 23 through March 1.
“It’s so surreal, it doesn’t even seem real,” Thomas said of wearing a Celtics jersey. “I’ve been in purple since college – from UDub (Washington) to Sacramento to Phoenix. Now, wearing the all green Celtics jersey is just so crazy. It’s so legendary and there’s so much history behind it. And the fans in Boston, whether it’s on social media or in person, they’ve shown me so much love and the market is so much bigger. Man, everything about it is crazy. It’s really a basketball city.”
Thomas believes the Celtics have a chance to be a very good team – now and in the future.
“I think we can be really good,” Thomas said. “We’re young right now and learning. We have a great, young head coach in Brad Stevens and a great coaching staff, and then I feel like everybody in the organization – from Danny Ainge down – knows how to build championship teams. Making the playoffs this season is the goal, and I’m excited for the future. Hopefully I can be here for a while.”
The Celtics’ starting backcourt of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley is tough and defensive-minded, but the duo is only averaging a combined 21.5 points per game on the season. That’s where Thomas and his 21.8 points come in. He is a perfect complement to those two gritty players since he can provide instant offense off of the bench.
“I’m just showing [Marcus] things that coaches and players showed me and helping him along the way,” Thomas said when asked about helping Smart develop. “I’ve already started telling him some little pointers that I think can make the game easier for him, and I also can learn from him on the defensive end. I mean, he’s a great defensive player and I can ask him for tips on how he goes about being such a great defensive player. We can learn from each other. I think we complement each other too, because our games aren’t really alike outside of us both attacking. I think we fit together really well.
“Me and Avery, we grew up together in the same neighborhood and played in the same AAU program,” Thomas added. “He’s a few years younger than me, but we always worked out together at the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the community centers – we always played together. I’ve known him since we were in grade school. It really doesn’t seem real. I mean, two guys coming from the same neighborhood not only playing in the NBA, but playing on the same team? It doesn’t seem real, but it’s so much fun. When I got traded, he was the first guy to hit me up and said, ‘This is crazy!’ I’m loving it and having so much fun here.”
Thomas seems to be a much better fit with the Celtics than he was with the Suns in his brief 46-game stint in Phoenix. Although it’s a small sample size, his numbers with Boston look similar to how he produced in his final season with the Sacramento Kings (20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.9 rebounds) even though he’s now coming off of the bench rather than starting and, as a result, playing 6.7 fewer minutes.
The 26-year-old was blindsided by the trade since he really felt that he had a long-term future with the Suns. They rolled out the red carpet for him in free agency this past summer and he signed a four-year, $28 million deal with them. He thought he’d be settling down in Phoenix with his fiancé and two children, but he was dealt eight months after inking his contract and found out in an odd way.
“I was actually on the Suns’ team bus because we were about to go to the airport to go to Minnesota,” Thomas said. “We were kind of waiting until the deadline came to leave the arena because we knew Goran Dragic was getting traded and we were just waiting for it be finalized. Then, when the deadline passed, everybody thought they were good. Everybody was like, ‘Whew, we’re good.’ Then, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee came back and told us they got traded to Milwaukee. Then, Brandan Wright read something and was like, ‘IT, you just got traded.’ I’m like, ‘You’re lying, no I didn’t.’ [Reports] said it was to Philly at first and I was so confused. Then, it ended up being Boston. I didn’t believe it, though, it caught me by surprise. I just got off of the bus, went into the locker room to get some things with Tyler and Miles and then talked to front office about being traded. That’s how I found out. I was ready to go to Minnesota as a member of the Suns. … We were still in the playoff hunt and that’s what caught everyone off guard, like, ‘Why are we making all of these moves if we’re still in playoff contention?’”
When Thomas talked to members of the Suns’ front office, he says he didn’t get much of an explanation for why he was moved.
“They said…” Thomas starts and then there’s a long pause. “I don’t know. It was a little weird. They said that I played well and, ‘Thank you for being a professional and thank you for this and that.’ Coach [Jeff] Hornacek said that while I was there, I played well and helped them, but that they were just going in a different direction. It caught me off guard. When Goran had said all of the stuff that he said in the media, you kind of knew he was going to get traded. But I didn’t think I was going to get traded. When it happened, they wished me luck and said this might be a better situation in Boston and that they wanted to send me somewhere that would help my career or something like that. I do thank them for the opportunity for believing in me and signing me, but now we went our separate ways.
“You realize it’s a business. It was shocking. I was caught off guard, but I will never be caught off guard again. That was my first time being traded so it caught me off guard, especially because I signed for four years just a few months ago. I thought I’d be there for a lot longer.”
When asked about making a midseason transition to a new team, Thomas admits it isn’t easy on or off the court.
“It is tough,” Thomas said. “I have a family – two boys and a fiancé – and they have to move too. That’s the toughest part. Because it’s near the end of the season, I’ll probably stay in a hotel for the rest of the season and look for a place out here in the summer. That’s probably the toughest part that people don’t see. Having to get up and move from a previous city and all of that stuff is tough, but the guys here in Boston are making it an easier transition for me.”
Thomas was surprised to be traded, but he wasn’t shocked to learn that it was the Celtics who acquired him. Their front office has shown interest in him for quite a while, so this move didn’t come out of nowhere.
“Danny Ainge was the first guy to call me at 12:01 on July 1 [when free agency started last summer] to tell me how much he was interested in me and tell me how much he liked my game,” Thomas said. “And I’ve heard from numerous people – my agent, players around the league, Avery Bradley – that Danny Ainge has liked me since I was in college. It isn’t anything new. When we were sitting there watching the Celtics and Kings game [the night after the trade] he told me, ‘I’ve wanted you since I watched you at the Maui Invitational [in 2010] when the world was talking about Kemba Walker and I felt like you were just as good as him.’ They didn’t draft me because they needed a shooting guard at the time, but he still liked me a lot.
“Then, right when I got to Boston, all of the staff members said, ‘Man, it’s been a long time coming and we’re not talking about your flight here. We’re talking about how long we’ve been trying to get you in a Boston Celtics uniform.’ It feels good. It feels good to be wanted like that. I felt wanted in Phoenix, but to have a legendary guy like Danny Ainge say that he loves what I do on the court is a blessing.”
As soon as the trade went down, Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford predicted that Thomas would be a perfect fit in Boston. Crawford has known Thomas for over a decade, since the two are both from Seattle, and they describe themselves as brothers.
“I think he can help them tremendously,” Crawford said of Thomas. “It’s such a storied franchise, and I know they’ve liked him for a long time and there’s nothing like being wanted. The shock of being traded can obviously throw you off a little bit, but it just means you’re wanted. I think he’s exactly what they need, with the way he plays and his spirit, and I know the Boston faithful will fall in love with him.”
Crawford was right, and it only took five games for Celtics fans to fall in love. “Thank you, Phoenix!” has been a popular tweet from fans in Boston recently.
Thomas has been excellent early on for the Celtics, but he has bigger goals in mind. He’s hoping to lead the team to the playoffs and shine on basketball’s biggest stage, for the first time in his career and his first time wearing a green jersey.
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