DA's Morning Tip
Morning Tip Q&A: Isaiah Thomas
Boston's All-Star guard talks about his clutch scoring ability, the Seattle hoop scene and more
Isaiah Thomas makes it look easy. It is not easy, what he does every night for the Celtics — a (maybe) 5-foot-9 guy who is absolutely lethal even when everyone in the building knows a) he’s going to get the ball, and b) he’s going left. But that’s how the 27-year-old has gone from the last pick in the 2011 Draft by the Sacramento Kings (he was an afterthought after the Kings made a deal to get Jimmer Fredette on Draft night) to an All-Star in Boston. How he got from Sacramento — where the Kings intimated he pounded the ball too much — to Phoenix, where he signed a four-year, $27 million contract in 2014 as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Kings, and then to Boston, which got him a few months later after the three-guard arrangement almost no one outside of Phoenix thought could work indeed didn’t work, to the Celtics, explains a lot about how those respective teams have done in recent years.
His size or ballhandling is not an issue in Boston, where coach Brad Stevens has given Thomas the ball and the late-game responsibility to make the right play. Thomas, as of this writing, is fifth in the league in scoring (27.7 points per game), providing Boston and GM Danny Ainge, who has been searching for stars to build around, a sturdy building block — one that is ridiculously affordable in this era of huge contracts. And he does his best work in the last 12 minutes; only Russell Westbrook is averaging more points in the fourth quarter (10.0) than Thomas’s 9.3.
On Friday, Thomas became just the fifth player in Celtics history to score 50 or more points in a game, going for 52 — including 29 in the fourth quarter — to hold off Miami. Thomas joined Paul Pierce (50 against the Cavaliers on Feb. 15, 2006), Sam Jones (51 against the Pistons on Oct. 29, 1965), Kevin McHale (56 against the Pistons on March 3, 1985) and Larry Bird — who did it four times, including a franchise-record 60 against Atlanta on March 12, 1985, just nine days after McHale had set the franchise record. Thomas is, indeed, cold blooded.
Me: So I look at the stats under top fourth quarter scorers in the league, and I see Westbrook one, Isaiah Thomas two. What’s the secret to that?
Isaiah Thomas: Taking advantage of the moment, always wanting that moment. I always say, fourth quarter isn’t for everybody. I embrace it. I know my teammates and my coaching staff look to me to be very aggressive in the fourth quarter, not just to score, but to make winning plays. I embrace that moment and I always have. It’s just something that I’m pretty good at, I guess.
Me: Does it surprise you that the fourth quarter isn’t for everyone?
IT: No. It’s for the best players. Not just saying I’m one of the best players, but you’ve seen it, if you’re a fan of the game of basketball. Whether it be Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, [the] fourth quarter is where they really lock in and take over games, and I always wanted to be one of those players.
“I’m just trying to stay in attack mode and trying to take what the defense gives me. And they’ve been giving me a lot.”
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, on his 4th quarter scoring prowess
Me: In terms of how you get looks in the fourth, is it different than at other points in the game?
IT: I think so. I’m looking to score even more in the fourth. Lately, coach has been starting me in the fourth quarter. I guess, it’s just to get a better rhythm. I’ve been trying to be aggressive to score and to make plays for others. I’m just trying to stay in attack mode and trying to take what the defense gives me. And they’ve been giving me a lot.
Me: Why has the team’s defense been up and down?
IT: First off, we haven’t had a full, healthy squad for a while. I think the last two weeks is the first time when everybody’s been healthy, and our defensive ratings have been up. And that’s a big plus for us, because we are a defensive-minded team. But we do need our good defenders to be out on the floor — Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. And we didn’t have that at the beginning of the year. And I think that was a big reason why our defensive numbers were down.
Me: What does Jae bring, specifically, with his ability to defend on the wings?
IT: He can guard multiple positions, and you need that in today’s game. And he can sit down and guard one through four, and that’s very versatile. That helps our team.
Me: And how is the continuity with you and Avery growing?
IT: It’s at a high level. We’re playing well. I’m trying to find him early and often in games, get him going, and then he helps me on the defensive end, where he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA. We help each other on both ends, and we have a pretty good connection, both being from the same neighborhood.
Me: I didn’t know that.
IT: Tacoma, Washington.
Me: Did you play against him growing up?
IT: I was a couple of years ahead of him, but we played in the same AAU program.
Me: We’ve talked before about the Seattle basketball scene and how Jason Terry and some of the guys you grew up watching told you that you had to pay it forward if you ever blew up. How tight is the group now?
IT: It’s big. I mean, Jason Terry started it — well, Doug Christie and the older guys started it, and it went down to Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy before he retired. The list goes on. We’ve got a lot of guys — Aaron Brooks, Zach LaVine. A close knit group. We’re always working out or playing five on five together during the offseason, and then Jamal and Jason always told me, ‘what we do for you, growing up, we need you to do for the next guy growing up.’ And it’s just a big brotherhood, and it goes down the line. Those guys paved the way, and we’re trying to take it from there.
Me: Do you think you’d be just as effective with the old rules, under the old system?
IT: Where you can handcheck? I think so. I like being physical. I think that’s one of the strengths of my game. I feel like in any era, I would have adjusted and just went off those rules.
Me: I saw where you tweeted that you liked the change to the rules this year where players will now get a vote for All-Star. What do you like about that?
IT: I like it because the players know who the real All-Stars are. The players know who the most valuable player on each team is, because we go up against each other each and every night. I always thought the players should get some type of vote, because they’re the ones who really know who’s got game and who doesn’t.
Me: So, you voting for yourself?
IT: Yes. I put too much work in not to. But I’ll vote for my other teammates as well. But, definitely got to give myself a vote.
Me: Do you remember exactly how you found out you’d been traded to Boston?
IT: Yes. I was on a bus headed to the airport. We were in Phoenix, going to Minnesota. We were waiting for the trade deadline to pass. We knew Goran Dragic was going to get traded; we didn’t think anybody else was. My name was called next. And Brandan Wright, who was on my team in Phoenix, actually said, ‘IT, you just got traded.’ And I said, ‘no I didn’t.’ And he showed me on his phone. And a coach came to the back of the bus and got me, and that was all she wrote.
Me: I’m still dumbstruck by that trade.
IT: I am, but I thank them. I appreciate it. You changed my career, how people look at me. And I’m on a winning team that’s making the playoffs and looking to go further. So, I’m happy with it.
Me: But you came to a spot where guys like KG blew up, too. What do you think when you hear how he praises you?
IT: It’s an honor. My first NBA game was the Sonics versus the T-Wolves in ’97, and I got to see Kevin Garnett. It’s an honor for him to talk highly of me, and I just try to follow in his footsteps. Try to be named the Little Ticket instead of the Big Ticket.
Me: I love the story about him woofing at you when he set the picks on you.
IT: Yeah, it was Sacramento versus Boston. And you always hear the stories of KG talking, and trash talking. One time he set a pick — he set a few picks, and I was getting upset, because they weren’t calling the illegal screen. And I said something to him, and he barked right back, ‘shut your little midget (bleep) up.’ And I kind of laughed. I was like, there you go. I was in one of those scenarios where he was talking trash. But one day he came up to me and he told me he respected how I played, and that’s all that really matters at the end of the day.
“I put too much work in not to. But I’ll vote for my other teammates as well. But, definitely got to give myself a vote.”
Thomas on voting for himself for All-Star 2017
Me: What is it like being in Boston and playing for that franchise?
IT: You can’t even explain it. The fans, the city, the community — it’s all about winning, and if you give 110 percent each and every time you’re on that court, they’ll fall in love with you. And one day, hopefully, I can bring another banner to the city. ‘Cause I know if you do that, then you’ll be loved forever. I want to be one of those guys.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
There is always 2 sides to every story.I would never insult an opponent's family regardless of how much a player insulted me repeatedly pic.twitter.com/Gi8b9F8bzD
— Salah Mejri (@50Mejri) December 28, 2016
— Mavericks center Salah Mejri (@50Mejri), Wednesday, 9:38 a.m., beginning a series of Tweets in which he denied making derogatory statements to Rockets forward Trevor Ariza about Ariza’s family during last Tuesday’s chippy Dallas-Houston game. There were eight technical fouls and two flagrants called; after the game, won by Houston 123-107, Ariza — who was ejected from the game and teammates James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon waited outside the Mavericks’ locker room. But Mejri did not come out and the Rockets’ players left before there was any confrontation. Harden said afterward that the Mavs’ players and coaches had been “unprofessional.”
THEY SAID IT
“As you know I owe a lot to George. I got my start in coaching with George. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. He’s a successful coach. That being said, if he wants to diminish his chances for the Hall of Fame, if he wants to undermine his chances to be a head coach again in this league, if he wants to settle old scores with GMs or players or whoever else, that’s his prerogative. But when it comes to my team and my players he needs to stay in his own lane.”
— Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, responding to comments made by former NBA head coach George Karl on Portland point guard Damian Lillard. Karl, in an interview with New York Magazine promoting his controversial new book “Furious George,” said he had watched the Blazers play recently and was trying to figure out why they were struggling. “My conclusion,” Karl told the magazine, “is that Damian Lillard is getting too much attention…who controls the team? The coach and the point guard. And that team is not working. I think their coach, Terry Stotts, is a great coach. So I’m going to say the problem is Lillard.” Karl subsequently told the Portland Tribune’s Kerry Eggers that Stotts was “absolutely right” to take issue with his comments, though he didn’t exactly walk back the substance of what he said about Lillard.
“With mutual love and respect, we have decided to end our engagement. With the nature of our professional obligations and the geographic distance between us, sustaining the relationship has been difficult. We have shared many wonderful moments through the years, and we expect to remain supportive of each other in the future.”
— Joint statement released by Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss on Jackson’s Twitter page last week. The two had been engaged for four years, with Jackson remaining in New York as president of basketball operations for the Knicks, while Buss remained in her role as president of the Lakers in Los Angeles. They had dated for 13 years before their engagement, and had been subject to specific rules imposed by the league to assure there were no conflicts of interest between the teams because of their respective boss’s relationship.
“He has the ultimate green light. It’s like neon.”
— Draymond Green, on former teammate and current Dallas Mavericks leading scorer Harrison Barnes, who returned to Oracle Arena for the first time this season last week after signing a $94 million max deal with the Mavs in July.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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