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Isaiah Thomas flexes his big muscle on Hornets in his return

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Isaiah Thomas made his return to the Celtics after missing four games with a groin strain to lead Boston to a tight win over the Charlotte Hornets Friday.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — The Little Man is back, and so is the fourth-quarter offense for the Celtics.

Thomas scored a game-high 26 points in his return from a four-game absence as the Celtics won 96-88 Friday. The Hornets were in control for much of the game despite being without their star guard, Kemba Walker. But when the Celtics unleashed a 15-0 run in the middle of the fourth, they maintained a comfortable lead most of the way home.

Thomas still felt a little ginger after, returning from a groin strain he suffered in Houston.

“Its not 100% but its close,” Thomas said. “I can still feel it a little bit, but that’s just going to happen because it’s a big muscle.”

While Thomas is back and won’t be needing time off, he still has more work to do to recover and get to full strength.

“I’m gonna continue to get treatment, try to let it heal as much as I can and keep fighting.”

Thomas was excited to be back, after GM Danny Ainge had to convince him he had to sit out and rest during the Celtics’ trip to San Antonio.

“Danny was on me. I didn’t really like talking to Danny last week,” Thomas joked. “He kept saying I wasn’t going to play anyway, so it was kind of his decision. I have to be smart, but it was just tough sitting out. I feel like if I can walk, I can play.”

Coach Brad Stevens said he called Thomas the other day and told him that he will need to be the spark against Charlotte. In the third quarter, Thomas went a perfect 4 for 4 for nine points and a pair of assists, recapturing the lead for the Celtics.

Isaiah’s spark burned brightest when he was tossed to the ground by Marco Belinelli when going up for a layup on the break. Belinelli was hit with a flagrant one, but he tried his hardest to offer Thomas a hand up. Isaiah was having none of it.

“I just got up on my own. I mean, if it’s not my teammates, then don’t help me up.”

Al Horford controlled the offense when Thomas was on the bench, going to work in the post against the likes of Cody Zeller while keeping the ball flowing in a relatively slow-paced game for Boston.

The Hornets took 20 more shots than the Celtics and had 10 steals to Boston’s 7. But Horford’s work in the half court, tying for a team-high five assists with Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas, kept the Celtics in the game before IT’s breakout play in the third quarter.

The movement hit its precipice when Horford and Olynyk whipped a give-and-go from corner to corner. Olynyk got the ball swung to him in the corner and threw an overhead pass to the opposite baseline to Horford, who up-faked and drove only to fling it back to Olynyk for the three.

While they dominated the fourth quarter, things did not look pretty early. The second quarter was filled with defensive miscues. Horford often found himself in no-man’s land, getting run out of the paint by Hornets bigs and struggling to communicate switches with guards like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart.

These miscommunications plagued the Celtics early in the season and were deftly exposed by Steve Clifford’s small lineups with Marvin Williams at the four.

“They went small at the end of the first half, and we struggled a little bit with that,” Stevens said. “Then we tried to play small and skilled most of the second half, with the exception of a little few minutes with Kelly (Olynyk) and Amir (Johnson).”

But in the second half, the defensive intensity improved, and Horford flared some rare emotion swatting away shots in the paint. Horford said Stevens pushed the team to step it up, and that was what made the difference.

“Our activity I think that is what is comes down to,” Horford said. “We were somewhat fatigued, but it’s all about pushing through and we kept pushing and were able to get over that hump.”

Amir Johnson was game-planned out of this one for the most part tonight; Johnson played only a seven-minute stint in the first quarter and a six-minute stint in the third. The Celtics went small most of the game, relying on Jerebko and Olynyk. Coach Stevens noted after the game that Jerebko will start second halves more frequently when the matchup calls for it.

“I think we’ll – kind of like the Houston game, we’ll pick and choose some of the starting opportunities for that group,” Stevens said. “Generally our starting lineup’s been pretty good; we just haven’t gotten the chance to play with it very often. So there will be games where Jonas starts – probably not quite as many as Amir – but certainly there’ll be games like tonight when we just felt like we needed the skill on the floor and we wanted to match the fives up with Al.”

Meanwhile, in the Battle of the Zellers, Cody went 1 for 6 in 27 minutes for just two points, while Tyler spent the night sitting courtside.