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The inimitable love story of Isaiah Thomas and Celtics Nation

How a two-year journey saw a city defined by championships fall in love with an unlikely star.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As a kid, the months of October and November are all about the build up to the holiday season. They are spent dreaming of exactly what you want, whether that be a new bike, an iPhone, an Xbox, or anything in between. Every year, every kid has that one item that they want more than anything.

But that’s not the best part of the holidays.

When you open that gift, it’s pure bliss. A smile creeps across your face as you finally receive whatever it is you had been looking forward to for weeks or maybe even months.

But then there’s the gift you never knew you wanted. The gift given to you by a person who knows you so well that they found something you love despite you never mentioning it, usually because it wasn’t even on your radar. The joy that comes with opening that present is an unmatched level of euphoria because the surprise made it so special.

That was Isaiah Thomas.

For a franchise like the Boston Celtics, legends aren’t hard to find. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Paul Pierce, and more have all donned the green and white, and it took a long, immaculate career for them to be immortalized in Boston history. And while Thomas isn’t on that level in either longevity or accomplishments, most current Celtics fans think of him as fondly as they do some other greats.

Thomas only spent two-and-a-half years in Boston. Payton Pritchard has already played more games in a Celtics uniform. But it wasn’t about the length, as was the case with most Boston giants. In the case of Thomas, it was the surprise, the passion, and the devotion to the city of Boston.

After the Celtics traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013, they were set to enter another dark age. In the 2006-07 season, just one year before Danny Ainge traded for Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston went 24-58, their second-worst record in franchise history.

By trading their two stars for (primarily) picks, Ainge set the Celtics up for another rebuild. It was the right move, especially in hindsight, and he opened the city of Boston up to years of losing basketball.

But Ainge later swindled the Phoenix Suns, sending out Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-rounder in a three-team deal that saw Thomas, Jonas Jerebko, and Gigi Datome join the Celtics.

Prior to the deal, Thomas was one-third of a loaded Suns backcourt that also included Goran Dragic and “I don’t wanna be here” Eric Bledsoe. At the 2015 deadline, they chose Bledsoe, sending Dragic to the Miami Heat and Thomas to Boston.

Utah Jazz v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Thomas was putting up solid numbers in Phoenix, but he was also fresh off the best year of his career, as he put up a then-career-high 20.3 points per game on the Sacramento Kings in the 2013-14 season. With DeMarcus Cousins and prime Rudy Gay by his side, Thomas was able to show flashes of the MVP-caliber player he would become in Boston, but Sacramento didn’t want to pay him at the time.

It was clear Thomas could play. Despite his size, the 5-foot-9 point guard was putting up crazy scoring numbers and producing highlight play after highlight play, but nobody could have predicted the explosion that was yet to come.

Originally, Thomas wasn’t even slated to start for the Celtics. He came off the bench in all 21 of the games he played for Boston in the 2014-15 season, and the following year, Boston opened up the year with Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley as the starting backcourt.

However, three games in, Smart went down with a sprained toe, opening the door for Thomas to enter the starting lineup. From there, the rest was history.

Thomas erupted onto the scene with a string of impressive scoring nights. He put up 27 points, 16 points, 20 points, 14 points, 23 points, 20 points, and 23 points over the course of a seven-game span. Boston went 5-2 in those games. And as the weeks went on, Thomas’ scoring outbursts ramped up even more.

By the time the trade deadline came around, Thomas had already recorded five 30-point games (en route to his first All-Star selection), and that number rose to 10 by the end of the regular season. The guy who was supposed to be the Celtics’ sixth man quickly turned into their leading scorer and best player, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Before Thomas’ emergence as a star, the Celtics were projected to land in the middle of the pack. Ahead of the 2015-16 season, ESPN predicted them to hit 43 wins, placing them at seventh in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, Thomas led them to a 48-win season and the fifth seed in the East. Unfortunately, they flamed out in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, but in Thomas’ second full season with the Celtics, everything changed.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

He once again led them to a better record than ESPN’s projected 50 wins, helping Boston to a 53-29 record and earning the #1 seed in the East.

But it wasn’t just about his on-court play. It was the way he carried himself on the court.

At his diminutive size, Thomas was easily overlooked (no pun intended) from the perspective of his play, but there was no way to look past his passion.

Every game was a new challenge for Thomas. Every possession was a new mountain to climb. Every opponent was a new rival. Every defender put in front of him was a new arch-nemesis.

And most notably, every fourth quarter was a new dragon to slay.

The King of the Fourth Quarter, as he would come to be known, made it a point to show up when it mattered most. The phrase “left it all out on the court” is overused and cliche, but there is truly no better way to describe the way Thomas played.

From darting glances at opponents after cooking them for a mid-range bucket to roaring screams that echoed throughout TD Garden, Thomas’ love for the game was on full display, and every Celtics fan watching could feel it.

Thomas’ commitment to Boston culminated in the 2016-17 playoffs. Less than a day prior to the start of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, he learned that his 22-year-old sister Chyna had tragically passed away. But despite the news, Thomas still suited up.

A video depicting Avery Bradley, Thomas’ close friend and then-Celtics teammate, consoling him on the sideline earlier in the day surfaced on social media. Prior to tip-off, the team held a moment of silence for Chyna, and Thomas could be seen with tears streaming down his face.

Every assist, bucket, and highlight-reel moment was completed with an empty, somber stare, but Thomas persevered. The Celtics crowd erupted any time Thomas scored, showing their support for the star as he finished the game with 33 points. It wasn’t enough to earn a win, but Thomas’ motivation was crystal clear.

The Celtics fell into an 0-2 against the Bulls, but they battled all the way back, earning a 4-2 series victory and a date with the Washington Wizards in the second round.

That’s where Thomas immortalized himself in Celtics history.

Thomas’ high-scoring affairs in the first round were impressive, but he notched his most memorable Celtics moment in the second round against Washington.

Still mourning the loss of his sister, Thomas entered the series against the Wizards on a mission. In the middle of what was supposed to be a Boston rebuild and just three years removed from the Paul Pierce-led Celtics, Thomas was looking to take the organization back to the Eastern Conference Finals and way ahead of schedule.

So, with John Wall and Bradley Beal staring him in the face, Thomas took TD Garden by storm. In Game 1, he poured in 33 points and nine assists, leading the Celtics to a 12-point win.

And in Game 2, on his sister’s birthday, he dropped 53 points—the second-most points ever scored by a Celtic in the postseason.

Boston was down by five points heading into the fourth quarter, and Thomas took it upon himself to will them to overtime. He dropped 20 of his 53 in the fourth and another nine in OT, lifting the Celtics to a 10-point win.

It was a truly incredible performance by a truly incredible person.

“It’s my sister,” Thomas said post-game when asked about what led to his monster night. “It’s her birthday today. Happy birthday. She would have been 23 today, so everything I do is for her. And she’s watching over me, so that’s all her.”

On the outside, Thomas was a stone-cold killer, but on the inside, reality was crumbling around him, and TD Garden was his place to let his emotions out.

“My family, my friends, they tell me to just keep going,” Thomas said after Game 2. “My sister wouldn’t want me to stop. The only thing about it is once I leave this gym, I hit reality, and she’s not here. So, that’s the tough part. But when I’m in this arena, I can lock in, and I know everything I do is for her.”

The Celtics went on to win the series in seven games but ultimately lost to the Cavaliers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, as a nagging hip injury sidelined Thomas for the remainder of the playoffs midway through Game 2.

That summer, Thomas was traded to the Cavaliers in a deal for Kyrie Irving that had fans tossing and turning. Irving was clearly the better player, but trading Thomas felt wrong. It still does. And it’s something he’s talked about at length. Thomas’ time with the Celtics came to a sad, abrupt end off the back of a tear-jerking run that saw a city and player fall in love.

For Bostonians, championships are the end-all-be-all. Anything short of a banner means the season was a failure, with no exceptions.

But Thomas was the exception.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Rooting for title-contending teams is great, but only if they reach their goal. Take the 2022-23 Celtics, for example. With every loss, there was disappointment, but with every win, there wasn’t joy — there was relief. That’s the downside of being a favorite.

When Thomas joined the Celtics, there were no expectations. No one thought they would win a championship, as Thomas’ arrival was never seen as a pivotal moment. But he took the reins and ran with the opportunities he was given.

In turn, he created something special — a brief, magical stretch where he became the face of one of the greatest sports cities in the world. Thomas allowed green to rush through his veins, and Celtics fans embraced him for it.

An organization with one of the richest histories in professional sports and a fanbase more critical than any other was swept away by one man.

Two years of devotion for a lifetime of adoration and respect.

It’s a story that can never be replicated, and Thomas was the main character.

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