Are the Cavaliers really sure Isaiah Thomas isn’t ready to play back-to-backs? Thomas made his much anticipated return to the court Tuesday, and he looked great in his Cleveland debut, scoring 17 points in 19 minutes in a 127–110 win over the Blazers. Thomas played like someone who hasn’t taken the court in a long time—he was aggressive, sometimes rusty, but mostly extremely fun.
The image of seeing Thomas play for the team that he most recently played against grew normal fairly quickly Tuesday. Thomas was gunning like he never missed any time, and he overcame some initial wobbliness to provide a spark off the bench. IT looked comfortable playing off the ball alongside LeBron, and he also provided some Boston flashbacks when handling in the pick-and-roll, pulling up for jumpers with the same reckless abandon that made him an MVP candidate with the Celtics.
Thomas’s best work came in the start of the fourth quarter. He ran point for the Cavs’ second unit, and him and Dwyane Wade’s two-man game helped Cleveland build a big lead on the Blazers. It will be very intriguing to watch how Ty Lue uses Thomas moving forward. He will undoubtedly move into the starting lineup when he’s healthy, but staggering LeBron’s and IT’s minutes could make Cleveland’s bench group even more potent. The Cavs have historically struggled building—or keeping—leads with James on the bench. Giving IT time to run the offense along with Wade could help change that dynamic, and ultimately help James get more rest.
There wasn’t quite enough of a sample to know how James and Thomas will play with each other. LeBron is certainly going to have the ball in his hands when he’s on the floor, but Thomas is too good to simply stand behind the three-point line and wait for catch-and-shoots. IT’s abilities as a playmaker however should ultimately help James carry less of a burden when he’s on the floor.
Most importantly, the concerns about Thomas’s long-term utility were put to rest for at least one night. There was a lot of confusion in the immediate aftermath of the Kyrie Irving trade. Would Thomas’s hip ever recover fully? Would he miss most of the regular season? With those questions hanging over him, Thomas made his return almost unexciting in this sense—he looked like any other great player coming back from injury. Sure, Thomas will still need to get his legs under him, but he hardly looked like a damaged product incapable of recreating his past success.
There will be more questions about IT as the season progresses. How will he hold up against the Warriors? How will his defense affect the Cavs? How Cleveland finds those answers will be important, but for now, the Cavs have to be extremely happy that their biggest offseason acquisition looks ready to contribute in a substantial way. Thomas’s 19 minutes Tuesday were already more than expected this early into his comeback. Hopefully IT is playing his typical amount of minutes a month from now—the Cavs and Celtics’ last regular season matchup comes on Feb. 11.