It's tempting to wonder if Isaiah Thomas will miss the rest of the playoffs because of the beat down the Cavs have put on the Celtics through two games of the East finals. That would be short sighted, of course. Thomas, the same player who flew to his sister’s funeral in between playoff games, the same player who dropped 53 points on what should have been his late sister‘s 23rd birthday, has proven he won’t succumb to any challenge. So it is extra disappointing to know Thomas’s historic season will end with a hip injury as opposed to a fight.
Thomas has always been a fighter. The last pick in the 2011 draft, the 5’9” guard overcame every question about his height and skill this season, putting together one of the best campaigns in Celtics history, no small feat for a franchise full of legends. Isaiah not only made fools of those who doubted his staying power, he especially made clowns of the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, two middling organizations who let him get away for practically nothing.
Thomas averaged over 28.5 points and 5.0 assists during the regular season, something only John Havlicek and Larry Bird have done in team history. Thomas’s average of 9.8 points per fourth quarter was the second-highest in NBA history. And his 53-point game against the Wizards during Round 2 of the playoffs was the second-highest scoring game in Celtics postseason history.
The playoffs were a particularly incredible stretch for Thomas. Not only did he have to deal with the tragic death of his sister, but he also had to silence critics who believed a small guard could never lead a team to postseason success. In matchups with some of his best contemporaries—Jimmy Butler and John Wall—Isaiah more than held his own, and he played with a fearlessness that rendered his height meaningless. Thomas was not quite able to work the same magic against LeBron James and a loaded Cavaliers team, though his injury certainly zapped much of his physical ability.
Somehow, despite his remarkable run this year, Thomas’s future in Boston is a little murky. With the No. 1 pick this summer, the Celtics are widely expected to pick guard MarkelleFultz, who could supplant Thomas at point in the long run. Isaiah is currently one of the best bargains in the league, making less than $7 million this year and next under the four-year deal he signed in 2014. Thomas will be a free agent in 2018, when he will likely command a max salary. Boston can offer him a five-year contract with over $170 million at that point, but will general manager Danny Ainge want to pay Thomas that much money into his 30s with Fultz potentially waiting in the wings?
Those questions will sort themselves out. For now, it’s best to remember Thomas’s most recent season as one of the great, genuine surprises of the NBA this decade. A player who was discarded by two struggling teams turned into an efficient Allen Iverson for one of the league’s premier franchises, and he struck fear into the hearts of opposing fans during every fourth quarter.
Whatever challenge Thomas faces next, whether it’s returning from injury, coexisting with a promising rookie or securing his future, there’s no doubt he’ll meet the obstacle head-on. That’s how Isaiah Thomas has built his career.