After the Boston Celtics announced that Isaiah Thomas would miss the remainder of the postseason after aggravating a right hip injury, team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge took to Twitter and dubbed Thomas’ 2016-17 campaign a “legendary season.”
It might sound like a bit of hyperbole, but in reflecting on everything that’s happened around Thomas since the start of the NBA’s calendar year in July, it truly has been a fascinating 10 months. Not only did Thomas overcome unimaginable grief and obvious physical pain to deliver the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals over the past five weeks, but he put together one of the more mesmerizing seasons in Celtics history.
In the two years since the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers last met in the playoffs, Thomas has morphed from a sixth man set free by two lottery teams into an two-time All-Star who earned his first All-NBA honors last week in large part because of his otherworldly offensive efforts this season.
And there were so many notable checkpoints over the past 300 days, many of which didn’t even involve on-court action. There was the trip to the Hamptons to recruit Kevin Durant, a viral video after Thomas stopped to shoot hoops with a local teenager, and enduring the tragic loss of his younger sister.
Those who have had a front-row seat for the end of the most recent Big Three era can safely say that Thomas’ 2016-17 was one of the most fascinating seasons we’ve covered, especially with the perspective that Thomas maintained along the way, even as his star rose to new heights.
While his iPhone is now filled with A-list celebrities and Basketball Hall of Famers, the 28-year-old Thomas has remained grounded in how he views the world around him. He’s just as mesmerized by everything happening around him as those of us chronicling his adventures.
A look back at some of the more memorable moments from Thomas’ legendary season:
The KD recruiting trip: Thomas was among the small handful of players the Celtics selected to join team brass in the Hamptons to pitch free-agent Durant on coming to Boston. Ainge also got Tom Brady to make the trip, and Thomas exchanged numbers with the New England Patriots quarterback. Now the two frequently text each other and Thomas is eager to learn how Brady has emerged as one of the NFL’s greatest winners.
IT meets AI: Thomas, who has often noted how Allen Iverson was one of his childhood idols, flew to Philadelphia to take part in Iverson’s annual summer gala. He emerged with a prized autographed jersey and new motivation. In a video captured by one of Thomas’ friends, Boston’s point guard paces his hotel room after interacting with Iverson and marvels at the stat line he averaged during his career. Thomas suggested that he needed to elevate his own game, setting the stage for the statistical leap that loomed.
Thomas surprises a fan: A video of Thomas stopping to shoots hoops with 14-year-old Robbie McNulty on a playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, went viral. Thomas and McNulty appeared on “Good Morning America,” with McNulty recounting a chance encounter with one of his favorite hoopsters before Thomas invited the teen to a Celtics game during the regular season.
Setting the bar high: While reflecting on how far he’d come to emerge as the new face of the Celtics franchise, Thomas laid out a new set of goals. “I want to be an All-Star. I want to be All-NBA. One day I want to be an MVP,” Thomas said. “That’s not just me talking, that’s goals that I have.” It seemed a bit far-fetched, and yet Thomas earned his second All-Star nod, landed on the All-NBA second team, and muscled his way into the MVP conversation.
Sneaks into train station: As part of a “Pick Me Last Again” advertising campaign, Nike plastered Boston with pictures of Thomas and the slogan referencing his status as the final pick in the 2011 draft. After fans encouraged him to check out the spread at South Station, the city’s largest railroad station and bus terminal, Thomas sneaked in one night with his wife and took pictures amid the sprawling display. Said Thomas: “That was like a dream. I can’t even explain it.”
New career high: Thomas entered the 2016-17 season having never produced a 40-point game in his NBA career. He’d hit that mark five times during the regular season, starting with a 44-point outburst in an overtime triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies. “I’m a killa,” Thomas screamed during his on-court interview, referencing what Iverson dubbed him in that August meeting.
Feeling the Heat: In by far his most memorable regular-season performance, Thomas erupted for 29 fourth-quarter points as part of a mesmerizing 52-point effort as the Celtics rallied to defeat the Miami Heat in overtime. Thomas’ mother was at TD Garden for the game, and Thomas said afterward, “I looked in the stands, and my mom was like, ‘Fifty! Fifty!’ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying!’”
KG puts IT in the MVP race: After his big games in late December, former Celtics legend Kevin Garnett declared on his “Area 21” segment that Thomas deserved a spot in the MVP conversation. Said Garnett: “Real talk: If [Russell] Westbrook and James Harden weren’t having the years they’re having, you would consider [Thomas] an early candidate for MVP, just because of what he does for his team.” Told of KG’s praise, Thomas said that, for Garnett to “talk highly of me is unbelievable.” Thomas also picked up the “Game of Thrones”-inspired nickname, “King In the Fourth” for his fourth-quarter prowess.
You know what time it is: In a game against the rival Washington Wizards, Thomas erupted for 20 fourth-quarter points as Boston emerged win a victory. After hitting a pull-up 3-pointer during his final-frame outburst, Thomas walked back up the court pointing at his wrist and screaming, “You know what time it is.” It became Thomas’ signature catchphrase and celebration.
Player of the Month: Thomas felt he was passed over for the East’s Player of the Month award in December, so he responded with what might have been an even more impressive January. Thomas averaged 32.9 points per game — the fourth-best scoring average in a month by a Celtics player — and capped the month with a 41-point, eight-assist effort in a victory over the Pistons.
Almost an All-Star starter: Thomas earned his second consecutive All-Star nod but missed out on a starter spot via tiebreaker when DeMar DeRozan edged him in the fan vote. Thomas got some revenge when he went off for 44 points — matching his second-highest regular-season output — in a win over the Raptors in early February.
A Celtics scoring record: Thomas set a new franchise record by scoring 20-plus points in 43 straight games spanning from mid-November to late February, besting John Havlicek’s mark. When his own streak ended soon after against the Hawks, Thomas pledged, “I’ll break it again.”
The hip injury: March was, by far, Thomas’ quietest month of the season and maybe now we know why. It was a mid-March meeting with the Timberwolves in which Thomas initially injured his right hip. Thomas scored 27 points in a victory that night but missed the next two games.
Unimaginable grief: The Celtics clawed their way to the No. 1 seed in the East but, on the eve of their playoff opener, Thomas’ younger sister, Chyna, died in a single-vehicle accident near Tacoma, Washington. As Thomas grieved, the Celtics lost the first two games of a first-round series against the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls but rallied to win the next four.
A call from KG: In Game 3 of that series against the Bulls, after Thomas had flown home to briefly be with his family, Garnett sent a video message aimed at inspiring Thomas to play in memory of his sister. Thomas decided to play the message for his teammates before Game 3 and Boston responded with a lopsided win that seemed to give Thomas and the Celtics a much-needed emotional jolt.
No rest vs. Wizards: Just hours after an emotional farewell to his sister at her funeral in Tacoma, Thomas took a cross-country, red-eye flight back to Boston and was on the court for the start of a Game 1 matinee against the Wizards. Despite having a tooth knocked out early in the first quarter, Thomas scored a game-high 33 points in a victory. Said Thomas: “Basketball, when I’m on the court, it just keeps me going.”
Birthday game: Playing on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday, Thomas scored 29 of his career-high 53 points in the fourth quarter and overtime while carrying the Celtics to a 129-119 victory. Thomas endured hours of dental surgery leading up to the game, but his focus was surely on his sister afterward. Said Thomas: “The least I can do is go out there and play for her.”
Film with Kobe: With the Celtics up 2-0 on the Wizards, Thomas revealed that he had been video-chatting with Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who was helping Thomas break down playoff game film. “[Bryant reaching out is] the craziest thing that’s happened to me,” Thomas said. “I remember when I was at home in Washington and I was on the phone and my mom kept saying, ‘Who are you talking to?’ I’m like, I had to put it on mute and I told her, ‘It’s Kobe!’ She started tripping a little bit.”
Playing through pain in Game 7: Noting that legends are made in Game 7, Thomas put up 29 points and 12 assists in the clincher against the Wizards, despite two days earlier having aggravated the hip injury that would soon end his season. Thomas noted he watched the 2008 Paul Pierce vs. LeBron James playoff duels for motivation. “I definitely did my studying and I knew it was going to be a big-time game,” said Thomas. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all. We came out on top.”