"I think stars are labels that people give them," Brad Stevens said in the corridors outside the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics coach was discussing the nature of stardom and how it relates to his point guard, Isaiah Thomas. "So, what's that have to do with how you play? The guy can play.
"Some stars have the star label"—Stevens paused meaningfully, nodded slightly—"and they aren't. And some guys don't have it, and they are."
Boston is competitive and ahead of schedule on a rebuild, but it's an article of faith among those that cover the team that the Celtics won't be the Celtics, Title Contender, until DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George or, prayer of prayer, Ben Simmons puts on Celtics green. And that's probably correct. They're a good team, but one without a centerpiece star.
They do have Thomas, however, who has been every bit a marquee player since arriving in a trade with the Phoenix Suns last season. Right now the Celtics have little choice but to defer to him offensively, but they don't seem particularly put out by this reality. Team president Danny Ainge consulted Thomas on moves this summer, and used him as a part of the recruiting pitch. They're not quite building around him, but Thomas appears to be a vital part of the team's future.
This is heady stuff for a former second-round pick who was traded by the Sacramento Kings for Alex Oriakhi and a trade exception back in July 2014, dumped at the trade deadline by the Suns last year after that team determined it had too many point guards, and is signed to a contract that stays comfortably in the six million range annually through 2018.
Thomas is putting up career-high numbers this season, but they aren't significantly better than his previously established level of play. Thomas's Player Efficiency Rating of 21.9 is best of his career, but he was at 20.6 last year and 20.5 the year before. His assist percentage of 36 is the best of his career—and good for ninth in the NBA during a point guard renaissance—and his turnover percentage is down to 12 percent, but Thomas has always excelled at finding teammates and limiting his mistakes. He's always been good, in other words. It's just taken some time for everyone to accept it.
"More opportunity" is the way Thomas explains his career season. "Playing a little more, have the ball in my hands a little more. I'm asked to do a little more. So I'm always up for the challenge. I want to be great. I'm definitely a better player. I worked tremendously hard to get better this summer, but it's always been in me. I've always thought if given the opportunity, I could play this way."
There's little about Thomas's game that is consistent these days, other than the production, which is a big part of why he's so fun to watch. On Saturday night against Memphis, Thomas repeatedly worked off the ball, utilizing his improved midrange jumper and pouring in 35 points. By contrast, Tuesday night in New York he was an engine of perpetual motion, sprinting, churning, and spinning around the court.
"I've always viewed him as a guy who can score in a variety of ways," Thomas's teammate David Lee said prior to Tuesday night's game. "Get to the basket, get to the free-throw line, can finish near the basket in a variety of ways, as well as shoot the heck out of the ball. So to me, it doesn't really matter if he's on or off the ball. Of course, we want him on the ball a lot, because of his ability in the pick-and-roll to make plays, not only for himself but for others." Lately, there hasn't been a wrong place to put Thomas, except the bench.
This was Isaiah Thomas's first quarter: He curled around a Kelly Olynyk screen and pulled up from the free-throw line for a jumper to get on the board. That set up his spinning around a Jared Sullinger screen at the same spot, penetrating into the lane, and dumping it off to Sullinger behind him for a foul-line jumper and two more points. Off a made hoop, Thomas went spiraling down the court, twisting, turning, into the lane, kicking out to Evan Turner for a three. Then, again a dervish, he went around but not through Robin Lopez, who deposited him on the ground with a foul; Thomas spread both arms theatrically as a pair of teammates helped him up. He buried both free throws, as he usually does—he's at 89.1 percent this season from the line, and 86.5 percent for his career.
Shortly after that, back on a turnover and more north-south, right around Jose Calderon and still a reverse finish—because Isaiah Thomas always has to find a little extra effort to add some space. The man is just 5-foot-9, after all, in a league of giants and lesser giants.
If it seems like Thomas is improvising, not sometimes but all the time, it's because he is, and because he has to. There is nothing to do but try everything. Against the Knicks, a three-point attempt turns into a jump pass when the 6-foot-5 Jerian Grant doesn't fall for a fake. An entry pass to Amir Johnson becomes a parabola, trying to get it simultaneously around and over the defender Lopez. An extra-quick release on his three comes when the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, with 18 inches on Thomas, streaks toward him on a rotation close out. Whatever it takes.
Thomas acknowledges that his game was changing by the night right now. "Coach is putting me in positions to be successful," he said. "And I'm trying to figure out different ways to make it tough on the defense, and not just show them one thing every time down. Show them something different, and be unpredictable. Shots are falling—I'm in a pretty good rhythm right now. But maybe I've got to do more. We've got to turn this around."
"This" may just be a slump—these Celtics were 19-15, after all, prior to a four-game skid that dropped them to .500. That they're still competitive is a credit to Stevens, who is masterful at getting teams to punch above their weight—Boston ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency entering Tuesday's loss to the Knicks, even though they lack a rim protector of any sort or much in the way of defensive pedigree on balance—and to Thomas's virtuosic play. It is worth wondering how long it will last, though, and whether the Celtics have enough to make the playoffs in a vastly improved Eastern Conference.
Both Thomas and Lee expressed the belief that winning, and only winning, is what would allow the league and the media to properly respect what Thomas is doing. "Hopefully one day I can be a star," Thomas said. "The numbers I'm putting up, I guess they're star numbers. But you've just got to win—winning takes care of all the individual success." This view makes sense, but it would be a shame if the story of the former 60th overall pick, on his third team and playing his way into the All-Star mix, was filed under "Scorer on a Losing Team." Thomas is more than that, and deserves to be recognized for it.
"Isaiah, early in his career, was on some losing teams in Sacramento," Lee said. "I remember we played him when I was in Golden State, and he was a guy who always gave us fits. But as far as the perspective of the league goes, and I know this from starting my career on some bad teams in New York, you get defined a certain way. And getting a fresh start, you're able to prove yourself. I was in Golden State, and he's been able to here."
It didn't happen Tuesday night. With 33 points already on his ledger, Thomas drove into the lane with 22 seconds left and the Celtics down three. He drew contact from Lopez—a play that got called a foul all night, and a call the best NBA players get, especially in that spot. It's a star's call, and Thomas didn't get it. He got blocked, and the game essentially ended right there.
"It's tough, but I've just got to keep playing the same way," Thomas said when it was over. "Someday they'll call it [that way for me]. To not call it there, when they've been calling it all game, was frustrating for me. But I think you can't think about that so much. As a player, you've got to just continue to make the same play the defense gives you. And for me, I'm going to continue going in the paint, continue to be aggressive, continue to get fouled. And put it on the refs."
Thomas looked down at his son, happily waiting out his father's media availability, headphones on. I asked him whether he believes he gets enough respect.
"Individually? No. That's another thing."
"Why? Because I'm 5'9''. That's why. It'll always be like this."
Thomas turned away, but the corners of his mouth curled slightly upward. He had his motivation, and he sure didn't seem to mind.