Isaiah Thomas and the Story of the 2014-2017 Celtics

Photo: USA Today Sports

The Boston Celtics are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in two years.

They completely redid their roster in the offseason, signing Gordon Hayward and trading for Kyrie Irving in a blockbuster deal with their conference finals opponent the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately for Celtics fans, Hayward went down in the opening minutes of the season with a gruesome ankle injury against the Cavaliers and Irving was lost for the year late in the season as he underwent a cleanup procedure on his knee that was shattered in the 2015 NBA Finals.

The anticipation coming into the season was to see Kyrie versus LeBron in the conference finals, but it is important to note some of the players traded in the deal for Irving. Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were players traded for Irving that officially sealed in history the most exciting and likable Celtics team that has ever played.

Flashback to July 12, 2013. The Celtics had just been run out of the playoffs by Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. The team looked old and tired. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were hobbling to the finish line. They looked lost and defeated.

As Boston prepared to focus on the Red Sox and the Patriots’ training camp, “Trader” Danny Ainge pulled off a blockbuster deal. He traded Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and a bevy of draft assets including four unprotected first round picks. Head coach Doc Rivers jumped ship soon after, heading to the Los Angeles Clippers where he could coach for a contender because he wasn’t interested in a rebuild.

The Celtics hired an unknown college head coach from Butler University named Brad Stevens and picked Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick in the following draft after tanking during the 2013-2014 season. Soon after, the Celtics traded new franchise cornerstone Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for—among other ancillary pieces—a journeyman forward in Jae Crowder. The Celtics started off the year and were average, but as the 2014 trade deadline approached, there was a playoff spot in the woeful Eastern Conference up for grabs.

Thursday, February 19th. The 2014 NBA trade deadline. The Celtics traded guard Marcus Thornton and Tayshaun Prince to Phoenix and Detroit respectively, acquiring a diminutive guard in Isaiah Thomas, and two foreign-born Pistons in Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome. Thomas made a case for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year down the stretch, and the Celtics were reborn.

Boston’s collection of castoffs headlined by Smart, Thomas, Crowder, Evan Turner and mainstay Avery Bradley were likable and had plenty of grit, and finished with a 40-42 record. This finish was good enough for the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed and a date with James’s Cavaliers. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland but the fortunes of the Leprechauns were just starting to change.

The next season brought promise, along with new draft picks Terry Rozier and James Young, the latter being a Nets first rounder. Thomas turned up his game to a whole new level, and Jerebko and Tyler Zeller were better able to mesh with the likes of Bradley and Jared Sullinger to form a more cohesive bunch instead of an entire roster ready and waiting to be shipped out at a moment’s notice.

Brad Stevens coaxed every drop of success out of his meager roster, and the Celtics were able to finish with a winning record and captured the fifth seed, setting up a date with the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, a veteran group led by Jeff Teague and Al Horford.

Many insiders picked the Celtics as an underdog to upset the Hawks, but the Celtics quickly dropped the first two in Atlanta. Come Game 3, the Garden crowd was revved up, and they got a glimpse along with everyone else the monster that Thomas was about to become.

Affectionately known as “the little guy” by Boston legend Tommy Heinsohn, Thomas dropped 42 points on the Hawks in Game 3 and poured on 28 more in Game 4. Powered by Jerebko’s clutch three-pointers and Smart’s unwavering defense, the Celtics won in overtime and forced a 2-2 series tie heading back to Atlanta. However, the Hawks won the next two games after Bradley and Crowder succumbed to injuries as the series wore on.

That winter, the Celtics were in a great position. They still had the Brooklyn Nets pick that year, which turned out to be No. 3 overall pick, and had a bevy of affordable contracts in Bradley (4 years, 32 million), Crowder (5 years, 35 million), and Thomas (4 years, 28 million).

Ainge had the cap space to make a free agent splash, and he eyed both the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and a familiar face in Horford. Horford signed a four year $128 million deal, making him the highest paid Celtics in history and the biggest free agent signing in decades, and the Celtics narrowly missed out on the Durant Sweepstakes.

Boston drafted Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick and prepared to go into the season with many of the same cast of characters minus Turner and Sullinger. The change was immediate. There was finally a viable second option for Thomas to use, and use he did. Horford, one of the best passing big men in the league, fit seamlessly into Steven’s ball movement, pick and roll style offense. The Celtics were high flying and always on the move. They won 53 games and narrowly edged out the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.

Round one was a familiar foe. They had been bounced from the playoffs each of the past two seasons in the opening series. But this time was different. They had the No. 1 seed and had home court advantage heading into the playoffs. Before Game 1 however, tragedy struck.

Chyna Thomas, sister of the Celtic’s star guard was killed in a car accident in Thomas’s home state of Washington. Questions surrounded the Celtics star as the team prepared to play Game 1 at the Garden. Pundits weren’t even sure if Thomas would play. At a shootaround before the game, Thomas could be seen with fellow Washington native and teammate Bradley weeping for the loss of his sibling. Emotions ran high, but the Celtics couldn’t translate it into points.

Led by former Celtic Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, the Bulls won Games 1 and 2 convincingly and headed back to the Windy City up 2-0. It seemed that the broken Celtics team had lost its mojo. The Celtics needed a bounce-back performance, and luckily the Leprechaun struck again as the Bulls lost Rondo to a forearm injury.

The Celtics won the next four games in convincing fashion and headed to the second round for the first time in the Stevens era. Waiting in round two were the Washington Wizards, where bad blood and a rivalry started in the regular season was renewed—the Wizards had infamously dressed in all black to a game versus the Celtics, claiming that it was their funeral. The stage was set for the stars, and John Wall and Bradley Beal were ready to throw down.

Game 1 was a tightly contested affair, but home-court advantage paid dividends once again as the Celtics pulled away late. An unexpected casualty of the game was Thomas’s tooth, which was knocked loose from an errant Otto Porter elbow that required four-plus hours of dental work to fix prior to Game 2—which ended up being Thomas’s best.

Following his trip to the orthodontist, Thomas’s pearly whites shined in the Garden spotlight as the NBA world watched as the guy who was at least a foot if not two shorter than the rest of the players on the court danced around the trees. Thomas pulled out every move in the book en route to an astonishing 53 points as the Celtics won in overtime.

Boston’s basketball hopes rested on the shoulders of a 5-foot-9 guard who had lost a sister and a tooth over the course of two weeks, and he was doing his part. But the Celtics needed more. They needed a role player to step up and prove himself as a viable third option to both Thomas and Horford, who had been the oil in the gears throughout the playoffs.

The Wizards won Games 3 and 4 in D.C., and each team won on its home court once more to set up a winner take all Game 7. In game sevens, all the chips are on the table. All bets are off. All that is needed is one moment or player to tip the scales—so why not a man bun?

72 hours after Thomas talked about how legends are made, he and Beal stepped up and answered each other dagger for dagger. The game was still in the balance late into the 4th quarter, and Boston’s backup center stole the show. Kelly Olynyk, the much-maligned Irish seven-footer, scored 12 points in a three and a half minute stretch as he piled up 26 that put the final nail in the Wizards coffin.

The Cavaliers waited in the next round, and the results were apparent. The Celtics, full of grit and fight, were outmatched for James, Irving, and Kevin Love. The only Celtic highlight was Bradley’s last big shot as a Celtic, a three-pointer that bounced around for an eternity before dropping to steal Game 3 for a team that was without Thomas, who was shut down for the season because of a hip issue.

Game 5 ended in a blowout and was the last hurrah for the Celtics. Boston then traded Bradley to the Pistons for Marcus Morris. Jerebko, Zeller, and Olynyk all left in free agency. The Celtics then traded Thomas, who was beloved in Boston, along with Crowder, a prospect and a pick for a superstar in Irving from James’s Cavaliers.

The longest-tenured Celtic is now Smart, who Boston drafted just four short years ago. Only four players return for last year’s No.1 seed—Horford, Smart, Brown, and Rozier. Ainge correctly saw not just the holes in his roster, but that it needed a complete overhaul. This new Celtics roster is clearly capable of competing for a title if they can hold the fort until Hayward gets back. But it doesn’t feel the same.

The Celtics who lost to the Cavaliers twice and the Hawks once in the playoffs are gone. Only a fool would argue that this team is worse than those Celtics. But those teams had the likeability factor, some would say the IT factor.

The Boston Celtics then embodied their city. They were a blue-collar team that wasn’t afraid to mix it up and get in each others’ and opponents’ faces. They were willing to go into the greasy and grimy areas, and they never felt out of any close game. The Celtics were the underdogs, especially when the self-proclaimed King is in their conference.

Watching Thomas go was hard for many Celtics fans. What he did during the 2016-17 regular and postseason will long live in Boston Sports lore. Not to mention, he helped recruit the two highest and most marquis free agents in Celtics history, and he also deserves to be commended for that. He put the Celtics in a position along with Crowder, Bradley, and others to turn Boston into the quickest rebuild the NBA has ever seen.

There was no prolonged tanking like in Philadelphia, or the inability to get out of their own way like their hated West Coast rivals in Los Angeles. Don’t get me wrong, this series will be a good measuring test for the Celtics to see if they can prove themselves to stand among the NBA’s elite while shorthanded. But hats off to the Celtics of old, who didn’t win a title, but will indelibly be in Boston Celtics’ fans hearts for the joy they gave us on the court and the position they put us in for years to come.

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