• With Isaiah Thomas sitting out, NBA fans will have to wait for the former Celtics star to face off against his old team. But will the Cavs-Celtics rivalry eventually deliver on its promise?
By Rob Mahoney
January 03, 2018

All the ingredients are in place for a rivalry between the Cavaliers and Celtics, if not for the fact that the matchup has been largely defined by absence. The opening night bout between them was played in the ghastly shadow of Gordon Hayward's injury, an event so jarring it took both teams the better part of a half to settle themselves down after witnessing it. When Cleveland and Boston meet again on Wednesday night, they will reckon with another void where a beloved All-NBA point guard should be.

Isaiah Thomas, the counterbalancing star sent out in Boston's offseason trade for Kyrie Irving, made his long-awaited return to the court against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. He scored 17 points in 19 minutes. It took seven months of rehabilitation for Thomas to ready his hip for game action—an injury sustained while playing for the Celtics, and then worsened when Thomas tried to keep those same Celtics alive in the playoffs. A tearful Thomas played through personal tragedy. He put his body on the line to help the team and he paid for it. Boston traded him soon thereafter.

Isaiah Thomas’s Much-Anticipated Cavs Debut Went Better Than Expected

In a perfect world, Thomas—forever fueled by slights—would get his first crack at revenge on Wednesday. The Garden would welcome him, charging the evening with a confusing energy. Thomas has already voiced his displeasure with the Celtics' front office, but a Basketball Ops department is hardly representative of an entire franchise. There are still Celtics in uniform whom Thomas cherished playing with. The team's fans championed him during his time in Boston as if he were a living legend. There would be heartfelt cheers, video tributes, and shared moments of acknowledgement. 

Instead, Thomas will watch from the bench, his absence conspicuous. The Cavaliers have a tough game ahead, yet somewhere in the back of their minds will be the vision of Thomas stepping into a pull-up three-pointer last night. They'll remember the way he conjured a driving angle from a stalled possession or set up LeBron James perfectly on a deep seal. Cleveland has been biding its time, in a sense, until Thomas could return. Now that he has, games like this one (a planned rest on the second night of a back-to-back) cannot help but feel incomplete. 

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Yet the tension between James and Irving alone is worth watching. Each goes to such great lengths to convince the world of how rarely they think of the other. James will be asked about Irving and Irving about James. LeBron will stress that his focus is on the team the Cavs have now. Kyrie will reinforce that he's just trying to move on. There may come a day when these questions slow or stop altogether, but for now Irving's trade request is still too raw. He was in a Cleveland uniform playing for the title not six months ago, and forcing his way out not five.

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It's hard not to read Irving's exit as a desire to escape LeBron's orbit. Whether or not that's true, days like this one bear reminders for the All-Star point guard of the pull he left behind. Anything involving James has a way of becoming The Story. A seemingly off-hand remark. An inscrutable Instagram post. LeBron is the kind of superstar for whom the micro is always macro. 

That isn't Irving's problem anymore, save for when the Cavaliers come to town. Some small moment of Wednesday's game will undoubtedly be analyzed to death in the aftermath, scrubbed either for symbolism or some other hidden meaning. That Thomas will not play changes the scope of the investigation, to say nothing of the stakes of a marquee game. The real deal will have to wait.

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