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It’s time to start giving Isaiah Thomas the superstar status he deserves

12.30.16 at 11:26 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas has earned superstar status. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas has earned superstar status. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas deserves a different kind of conversation.

OK, maybe it took the Celtics guard scoring 52 points in his team’s 117-114 win over the Heat Friday night to jump-start the conversation. And scoring a franchise-record 29 points in the fourth quarter — coming two away from Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA mark, set in the Hall of Famer’s 100-point game — certainly should allow for another night in the spotlight.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Thomas said after the performance. “It’s crazy.” But for 2016, this was the Celtics’ David Ortiz. Thomas was the alpha dog. The guy who kept talks of competing beyond the regular season finale a reality.

Right now, as we sit here, there are three athletes who have established themselves as legitimate superstars during this calendar year. Tom Brady. Mookie Betts. Thomas. (You can make the case for Patrice Bergeron, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Rob Gronkowski, and maybe Brad Marchand, but each feel like they fall short of the others.)

But on virtually every day but the one he nets 52, Thomas is usually on the outskirts of such a conversation. Why?

Maybe it’s because some haven’t got past the fact this was a guy who was the very last pick in the 2011 NBA draft. Or perhaps it is because Danny Ainge only needed journeyman guard Marcus Thornton and a pick in the 2015 draft to get him from the Phoenix two seasons ago.

Yet the real reason we still don’t want to immediately identify Thomas as a no-questions-asked foundation piece is something he brought up after getting doused with ice by his teammates in the Celtics’ locker room.

“I do,” said Thomas when asked if he felt there is a hesitation to lump him in with the league’s superstars. “The only reason say that is because I’m 5-9. That’s why they don’t about me like they do the other guys. But I’m fine with it.”

Once again, it’s easy to bring this up now. It was the first time a Celtic had scored 50 or more points since Paul Pierce netted half a century in a double-overtime loss to Cleveland on Feb. 15, 2006. Only Larry Bird and Kevin McHale scored more points in a single game while wearing a Celtics uniform. And the nine three-pointers tied a club record, with Antoine Walker having managed the total twice.

“It just felt like I was out there by myself, like I was in the guy working on my game,” Thomas said. “I was just throwing up everything and it was going in. It was a special feeling.”

This, however, is bigger than just one night.

Thomas — who is now fifth in the NBA in scoring — has the skill and personality befitting those we hold above the rest. Last postseason, he was the one who called out his teammates after nobody could pry Atlanta’s triple-team away from him. Time and time again, it is the guard who has let the Celtics’ complementary players still win with their complementary skills. And Brad Stevens can be a good coach who wins in the NBA, because even the best coaches in this league need players who can score.

And all of this while paying him just more than $6 million this season and next before he finally is eligible for free agency after the 2017-18 season.

Thomas is keeper. That is one thing the Celtics should feel confident of heading into the new year.

“For me it feels normal,” he said. “When I score and I put the numbers up that I do, I give credit to my teammates and this organization for believing in me. It feels normal. Everything I’ve always done in my whole life I’ve worked that hard for it. It’s never felt like, ‘I’m 5-9.’ When I’m out there I feel like I’m 6-4. It’s just the same as everybody else. Tonight was different. But everything else, it feels somewhat normal.”

 

What was lesson Celtics learned after Isaiah Thomas’ 52-point night? They need to get him some help

12.30.16 at 9:56 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas netted a franchise-record nine three-pointers Friday night. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas netted a franchise-record nine three-pointers Friday night. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

It is the most uncomplicated team in recent memory. When it comes to the Celtics, the reality is simple: they are one player away.

This has nothing to do with the Celtics’ 117-114 win over a bad Miami Heat team, back-to-back games, or not having Avery Bradley for Friday night’s game.

What transpired against the Heat without Bradley — who missed his first game with an illness — was a familiar refrain. The Celtics needed scoring, so Isaiah Thomas scored. In this case, the production was in the form of 52 points and franchise-record nine three-pointers.

(For a complete recap, click here.)

Al Horford also offered his complementary output. But as has been the case for most of the last two seasons, the mish-mash of good-but-not great was good enough to beat a team like Miami, but not enough to get over the hump against the conference elite in Cleveland.

Thomas could do whatever he wanted against this collection of Heat. Try this strategy against any team with a record better than 10-24? Good luck.

Sure, Bradley and his 17.9 points a game would have helped. But without the guard, and even with Horford, this was a reminder of the pain that will ultimately be waiting in the postseason. The kind of pain that the Celtics became all-too-familiar with last April against the Hawks when Thomas finished off his season bemoaning triple-teams.

So, will this dynamic change before the Celtics really have to be judged against the best of the East?

It’s not like legitimate Top 3 guys can be added without some discomfort. In the case of DeMarcus Cousins (whose game would be a perfect fit), the uneasiness comes with both the player’s demeanor, and the cost to bring him in.

And really to reel in any available player similar to Cousin’s caliber, the Celtics be ready to give up that Brooklyn pick. It is one that is looking better and better every day thanks to both the college prospects who might be available and the Nets’ record. (Brooklyn owns the NBA’s worst record after Friday night’s loss.)

Perhaps Danny Ainge wants to ride this out. But the problem is if he does there really doesn’t seem to a lot of hope for internal solutions.

Jae Crowder. Marcus Smart. Gerald Green. Jonas Jerebko. Terry Rozier. To think that any of of this group is going to offer the kind of consistent production needed to change the conversation isn’t realistic.

Perhaps the best hope is Jaylen Brown, the rookie who once again showed flashes in his 15 minutes against the Heat. Brown finished with just six points on 3-of-4 shooting from the floor, but with some increased confidence and playing time, he possesses the type of game of that can solve some problems.

Or maybe Brown becomes the kind of player teams will actually prioritize when looking to talk trade with the Celtics.

Isaiah (who, by the way, didn’t have a single assist) needs some help. Until then, the Celtics will have to live on the edge they’ve found themselves the last two nights.

What should the Celtics do?

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How big a loss would Avery Bradley be? Celtics find out against Heat

12.30.16 at 6:55 pm ET
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Avery Bradley is missing his first game of the season, Friday night. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Avery Bradley is missing his first game of the season, Friday night. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Avery Bradley was not available for the Celtics’ game against the Heat Friday night. He wasn’t even at TD Garden.

Upon first blush, the news would have seemed to be a result of a jammed left thumb suffered on a blocked shot by LeBron James Thursday night. But that was not the case. Bradley’s absence, as explained by Celtics coach Brad Stevens, was due to a illness.

“Avery’s home sick,” Stevens said prior to the C’s showdown against Miami. “His hand felt a little bit better, but he came down with the latest sickness. He came in, got checked out and we sent him home.”

Bradley had been a key component in the Celtics’ two previous meetings, with the guard scoring 18 and 20 points, respectively in both C’s wins.

Starting in place of Bradley was Marcus Smart.

Bradley is turning in a borderline All-Star season, averaging 17.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in just 28.4 minutes a contest. He has hit double-figures in each of his 33 games.

It will be the first game the Celtics have gone without Bradley this season, having represented the only Celtic who started every game.

Celtics still can’t catch Cavaliers

12.29.16 at 11:20 pm ET
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LeBron James drives during Thursday's game in Cleveland. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

LeBron James drives during Thursday’s game in Cleveland. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

At Thursday’s team shootaround, hours before the Celtics took on the defending NBA champion Cavaliers, Brad Stevens was asked about the C’s using the game as a measuring stick, and he downplayed the significance.

“We’ve played these guys,” Stevens said (via MassLive.com). “We know how good they are. They’re the class of the East. Regardless of how we play tonight and regardless of result, these guys are still the champions last year and they are still well ahead of all of us. We’re chasing them. We’ve got to play better over the course of a long, long stretch to start talking about measuring anything against this level, in my opinion.”

Good choice of words.

As has been the case for most of the season, the Celtics were unable to deliver when faced with a chance to make a statement against one of the league’s elite, rallying in the fourth quarter to cut a 20-point deficit to one but ultimately dropping a 124-118 decision in Cleveland.

They’ll take away some positives — the C’s took control in the fourth quarter and had a chance to take the lead with eight seconds remaining but Jae Crowder’s 3-pointer clanged off the back of the rim, and Al Horford’s block of a LeBron James layup attempt in the first half undoubtedly will become a regular clip on the TD Garden video board the rest of the season  — but they continue to show that they are not yet ready to take that next step.

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Celtics make themselves a tough opponent as they find versatility in individual abilities

12.27.16 at 11:08 pm ET
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Marcus Smart applauds the Celtics' effort during Tuesday's victory over the Grizzlies. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Marcus Smart applauds the Celtics’ effort during Tuesday’s victory over the Grizzlies. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics’ 113-103 win over the Grizzlies Tuesday night was, by all accounts, much better than the nail-biter they found themselves in exactly a week prior.

Trailing by as many as 17 at one point, the C’s were saved only by a 44-point performance by Isaiah Thomas in the two-point overtime win in Memphis last Tuesday. This time around, the Celtics never trailed after 4:07 in the first quarter. They controlled field goal and 3-point percentages as well as rebounds.

What the win truly served as, however, was a clinic in variety.

There was little doubt that after dismantling the otherwise stout Grizzlies defense, Memphis was going to put heavy emphasis on stopping Thomas. To a degree, they did that, holding him to 21 points. But the Celtics way of answering was unleashing a wealth of other scorers onto them to balance the offense.

“They were paying a lot of attention to [Thomas] off screens, they were blitzing some, they were sending guys from the weak side into the paint. And I thought he did a pretty good job of making the right play,” coach Brad Stevens said following the win.

The Celtics had five others on top of Thomas in double figures. Al Horford (11), Marcus Smart (13), Jae Crowder (17), Gerald Green (19) and Avery Bradley (23) all helped balance out the production.

Marcus Smart was subtly a major part of relieving some of the pressure off of Thomas. Oftentimes lately (with Tuesday as no exception), the 22-year-old has been tasked with running the point, allowing Thomas to get time on the bench without the need to but Terry Rozier in, who otherwise would be a defensive downgrade.

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Read More: Avery Bradley, Gerald Green, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart

Celtics find hidden gem deep on bench in win over Grizzlies: Gerald Green

12.27.16 at 9:57 pm ET
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Gerald Green drives past two Grizzlies defenders during Tuesday's game. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Gerald Green drives past two Grizzlies defenders during Tuesday’s game. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

There was an odd stretch of time from the start of the second period to the seven-minute mark of the frame in the Celtics’ 113-103 win over the Grizzlies Tuesday night.

Eighteen seconds in, Gerald Green took a feed from Kelly Olynyk and knocked down a 17-foot jumper. Innocuous enough.

Shortly over a minute later, the 30-year-old took a step back 24-footer to extend the Celtics’ lead to nine. After Vince Carter — a man nine years his senior — drained a 3-pointer, Green responded with another 2-point jumper. At that point, it was becoming evident that Green was starting to feel some kind of way.

He found the net from distance one more time, dropping a 26-footer to put the Celtics up by 11 and sending the TD Garden into hysterics. He was subbed out for Jae Crowder 1:35 later, finishing the eight minutes of work with a then-team-leading 10 points. 

He reentered the game in the third period, providing another spark in the fourth with an offensive board on the Celtics’ baseline, finishing with a contested layup off the glass. It put the Celtics up by six and coerced the Grizzlies into a timeout. He finished the night with 19 points in as many minutes with five rebounds. When he departed the game with 3:44 in the game and a five-point lead, the Garden crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Only Avery Bradley (23) and Isaiah Thomas (21) had more points for the Celtics than Green.

(For a complete recap of the Celtics’ win, click here)

With possibly Tyler Zeller as his only competition for player with most fluctuation in his minutes, Green’s return to the Celtics has been nothing short of enigmatic. He’s averaged 9.9 minutes per game this season, has been active for 28 games and seen the floor in just 15 of them.

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Read More: Gerald Green,

Celtics pregame notes: After 6-6 start at home, Celtics looking to improve at Garden

12.27.16 at 6:33 pm ET
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Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens

Following a stretch of five games in which four were played on the road, reasonable minds would believe it’s a welcome change for the Celtics to have a home tilt on the docket as they do Tuesday against the Grizzlies.

Not so fast.

The Celtics are off to a 6-6 start at home, they’ve shot 44-percent or less from the field in eight of those games and enter Tuesday 2-3 in their last five home games.

For coach Brad Stevens, it’s about playing strong regardless of venue.

“I don’t really look at whether or not you’re playing at home or on the road. You’ve just got to play well between the lines,” Stevens said prior to Tuesday’s game. “I don’t know if there’s enough of a sample size necessarily to say you play well on the road or well at home.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to figure out a way to win some of those games and get over the hump a little bit more. That is what it is, I haven’t lost sleep over that as much as just trying to get better as a team and play well when the clock starts.”

The Celtics will need to find a way to win games at home sooner rather than later with home matchups scheduled to ramp up in the coming weeks. After playing just 12 games at home as opposed to 19 on the road thus far into the season, the C’s have six of the next eight games at TD Garden between Tuesday and Jan. 11.

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Read More: Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Memphis Grizzlies,
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