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Isaiah Thomas makes history, but his duel with Conley was unforgettable

It was a historic night from Isaiah Thomas, while his battle with Mike Conley was an illustration of how much fun and artistic basketball can be.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

This hasn’t been the kind of year that you expect the Celtics make history. Yet after the Celtics left Memphis with their first hallmark victory of the year, Thomas walked out in a class of his own.

Isaiah became the first Celtic to score at least 40 points and go perfect from the line with at least 15 attempts in the regular season, per Basketball Reference. Paul Pierce hit those marks once in the playoffs. Thomas’s 17 free throws were the most without a miss in Celtics history.

“They were punking us in the first half,” Thomas told CSNNE’s Abby Chin. “This might turn the season around, for real."

It was the 10th time in NBA history (going back to ’63-’64) that a player scored at least 44 points and shot 100% from the line with at least 17 free throws. The others on that list are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dominique Wilkins, Rick Barry, Adrian Dantley, Allan Houston, Deron Williams and……Devin Harris?

Despite all of the illustrious history he shared in this evening, the most fascinating aspect was his battle against an otherworldly Mike Conley in crunch time. In the final 13 minutes of the game, Thomas and Conley went blow for blow with 15 points to 13 points and 2 assists to 3, respectively.

Conley either scored or assisted on all but one Grizzlies basket in the final eight minutes of regulation. When the Grizz called a timeout down three with three minutes left, Conley found Troy Daniels on a second-chance possession for an equalizer three. He came back down a minute later to hit a big three to retake the lead, which Thomas quickly erased.

Conley’s drive to take the lead with 32 seconds left was a work of art. The slick crossover to get by Horford was nice, but his jump stop and reaching finger roll would make a Bolshoi ballerina blush.

But when Thomas got the ball on the following inbounds play, he went right to the weak-side lane and drew a controversial foul call. Regardless of whether the ref should have swallowed the whistle, Thomas is an expert at drawing contact, and it paid huge dividends for him Tuesday.

While Thomas was white hot all night, the Grizzlies’ defensive approach played into his hands. Thomas lately has been obsessed with pulling up into a quick three in both transition and the pick-and-roll.

The Grizzlies like to zone up on screens, sitting Marc Gasol down on the free throw line. So Thomas used this as an invitation to pull up when open or get in the paint and wreak havoc. He got into the kind of rhythm that gets the voice in his head to whisper, “Shoot it” when he comes down in transition with a full step of space. Those sweet nothings propelled him to a 24-point fourth quarter and overtime, finishing with a career-high 44 points.

“Isaiah is one helluva scorer,” Jae Crowder said in his post-game interview. “Just the way they were guarding the pick and roll, we knew it was a big night for our guards, especially for him, to get in the paint and live in the paint all night, because their bigs play a little back in the pick and roll.“

It was one helluva night for Thomas. He won the battle against one of the other great unsung stars of the league in Conley. He has another battle ahead against Russell Westbrook on Friday, who has been putting up this kind of output routinely this year. Here’s to another featherweight battle of little giants.

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