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The Isaiah Thomas Show is Must-See TV

The Celtics can play with (almost) anyone in the league and Thomas is the biggest reason why.

The Utah Jazz visited Boston Tuesday night to play the Celtics in what was supposed to be a matchup between two of the NBA's chic superstar-less collectives. The Jazz, hanging tough at fifth in the Western Conference, get by on Gordon Hayward's stat-sheet stuffing, Rudy Gobert's Silly Putty defense, Rodney Hood's dependability, and some veteran headiness from Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson. The Celtics in recent years have been a more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts outfit, reaching the playoffs by way of clever sets and airtight defense. Tuesday's game could have been a symphony of hoops minutiae, all timed pin-downs and immaculate rotations—math-y, maybe, but a delight for connoisseurs.


Instead, it became the Isaiah Thomas Show, as Celtics games increasingly do. Four nights after dropping—the verb never seems more accurate than when applied to Thomas, whose ceiling-scraping floaters and ballistic triples seem almost to whistle straight down through the net—a career-high 52 points on the Miami Heat, he went for 29 and 15 assists in an 11-point win. He canned open and well-guarded threes; he stutter-stepped in for layups; he hit cutters in stride and slung passes out to stationed shooters he couldn't possibly have seen. In the process, he bumped up his scoring average to 27.8, fifth in the league and more than five points better than his previous career best. He heard "MVP!" chants from the Garden crowd.

Because of his size—obligatory and increasingly unimportant: he's 5'9"—Thomas has spent much of his NBA career positioned as a curiosity. After three seasons of promising but win-scarce basketball in Sacramento, he was shipped to Phoenix, who brought him off the bench in an "instant offense" role. When the Suns shipped him along to Boston, Brad Stevens initially used him the same way. Last year, given the chance to start, Thomas proved that he could captain a steady offense. This season, he's shown that he can fuel a pretty thrilling one.

Thomas's outing against Utah demonstrated his range. There was plenty of pure bucket-getting bravado—take your pick from this video; I'll have the fade he lobbed over Gordon Hayward to beat the shot clock in the first quarter—but there were also some subtler pleasures. Thomas snuck a pass to Jae Crowder just as Crowder worked off a flare screen for an open three, and he leveraged his penchant for quick pull-ups into an easy dunk for Kelly Olynyk in transition. He has an otherworldly sense of the court's angles that lets him both create leverage for his own shots and spot opportunities for teammates. On this night, Thomas was not only the Boston offense's usual endpoint; he was its engine.

Sad as it is to recognize, there may be a ceiling to how good the Celtics can be with Thomas playing such a crucial role. Thomas himself acknowledges the limitations of their wringing-resources-dry approach. But the story of the current NBA is two angelic teams towering over the mortal ones, and in the latter group, the Celtics can play with anyone. Their little point guard, no longer relegated in any sense, is the biggest reason why.