Boston Celtics: The Year Of Thomas

March 10, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) reacts during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
March 10, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) reacts during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

The case can be made that the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas deserves the honor of NBA MVP. But even if he doesn’t win it, the 2016-17 NBA season belongs to him.

Isaiah Thomas needled his way through the Chicago Bulls defense on Sunday afternoon, dribbling past former Celtic Rajon Rando before lobbing in a floater over lumbering giant Robin Lopez. He was the shortest player on either roster, at five feet nine inches tall, but that didn’t stop him from pouring in 22 points in Boston’s 100 to 80 bludgeoning of the Bulls.

The former final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has become a dark horse to win NBA MVP. His fourth-quarter performances are gaining legendary status; earning him the reputation of a late-game savior regularly pulling the Boston Celtics from the jaws of defeat.

His play has made the height thing somewhat of an afterthought. But it’s still tough to mention Thomas without associating him with the “best little man” title, which seems to be his defacto narrative. Much like his predecessors, namely Allen Iverson, Thomas is thought of a scoring point guard first.

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That’s where Thomas’s magical 2016-17 season began. The former last pick in the draft and “The Answer” developed a friendship in the offseason, with Thomas rubbing shoulders with A.I. at the 76ers legend’s celebrity gala in August. And it’s been reported Iverson often texts words of encouragement to prototype.

Their production is comparable; in his MVP season Iverson averaged 31 points per game and four assists. Thomas is scoring 29 per game with six assists per game. Iverson was also three inches taller.

We knew something was different about this year’s Isaiah Thomas. He dropped a flurry of 40-point scoring performances early in the season. He was shooting better, passing more and demanding more for of himself and his teammates. And then, midway through the year, a record-setting streak of 20-point per game performances. Now, he is nipping at the heels of Larry Bird’s points per game record.

In a typical NBA season, Thomas might be a frontrunner for the league’s most coveted honor. But with Russell Westbrook averaging a triple double, James Harden’s historically good season and LeBron James playing to script, there is hardly room for Thomas in the conversation. But make no mistake, Thomas’s value is on par with the game’s best.

A quick Google search of Thomas’s name reveals a smattering of headlines, few even mentioning the possibility of his MVP candidacy. Yes, there was the night Oracle Arena fans chanted “MVP” as Thomas ran amuck against the one-time champs. But the coverage of Boston primarily targets the team’s cohesiveness, the leadership of both coach Brad Stevens and Thomas, whether or not Boston can challenge Cleveland in the playoffs.

Thomas’s MVP candidacy is hardly on the radar.

His fourth quarter heroics are well documented. According to ESPN, Thomas is averaging about 10 points per final period. That’s more points than anyone has averaged in the fourth quarter since the MJ era. Thomas is first in the league in “clutch time” points and made free throws. He also right up there in late threes and made FGs. All numbers that have helped him earn the title of “King in the Fourth.”

But there is so much more to Thomas’s game. Let’s go back to the Celtics Sunday, nationally televised drumming of the Bulls. Thomas knifed into the lane to score the Celtics first points in the second half, prompting Color Commentator Hubie Brown to exclaim “he’s one of the best low post finishers in our league and he is only 5-foot-9.

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  • Brown is right. According to the NBA’s stats and information database, Thomas holds one of the league’s highest field goal percentages in the paint. He’s also top 20 in points in the paint per game. At 5-foot-9. .

    Our friends at SBNation recently dissected Thomas’s uncanny knack for scoring down low.

    "The Celtics know Isaiah is faster than his defenders, so they move him off the ball and through a maze of screens to get him a step on his man. From there, Thomas has the agility, strength, and quickness to slip between bigger defenders and get buckets."

    And even though Thomas is short, he’s strong, “bowling ball” like as SBNation says. Thomas has no problem bodying up against bigger defenders and battering them like pins.

    But Thomas, for a high-volume shooter, is an excellent distributor. Averaging more than six dimes a game, he fits well into the Brad Stevens quick pass, quick shot offense. For that reason, I feel Thomas’s game parallels a prime Damon Stoudamire. Like Thomas, Stoudamire had the ability to light up the three point line, get to the rim and was one of the league’s best past passers for a short time. Both were shorter than six feet and both were lefties. Both grew up in the Northwest. Thomas’s career might just be the resurrection of Stoudamire’s.

    Back to the point, Thomas has the all-around game you look for in an MVP caliber player. His three rebounds a contest is solid for a point guard. Thomas’s off-ball defense is solid. Like a defensive back in football, he regular darts into passing, picking off passes before coasting for easy layups. It’s the new Thomas; he’s no longer just an electrifying scorer coming off the bench in Sacramento, or leading a balanced Boston team in points.

    He does everything.

    In a typical NBA season, Thomas might be a frontrunner for the league’s most coveted honor

    Yes, Thomas looks like an MVP. But no he won’t win the MVP. He will probably finish the year averaging more points and maybe more assists than James, while possibly leading his team to better record than Harden’s Rockets or Westbrook’s Thunder. But, again, no, he won’t win MVP. But his footprint on 2016-17 NBA season will be more prominent than whoever does win MVP.

    Thomas was once thought of as a locker-room liability. Then a role player, and last year a good scorer and borderline All-Star. Thomas has rewritten the rule book on how to recreate an image, not only erasing his own negative reputation, but escalating his status among the NBA elite each year. He’s also climbing the echelon of Boston Celtics lore, smashing Boston unlike the city’s adopted prodigal son Paul Pierce.

    But of course, we most revisit the unshakeable narrative. Thomas is showing that sub-six footers aren’t just quick scorers off the bench, but versatile juggernauts that can pick apart defenses like bigger wings.

    He’s making us rethink what it means to be a scoring guard. Unlike, say Damian Liliard or Westbrook, Thomas gracefully shifts from a ball-handling scorer to a facilitator to a two-guard who uses picks and movement to get open like Reggie Miller. And once again, he’s only 5-foot-9.

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    We’ve never seen a dominant, little player like Thomas. Mot Muggsy Bogues, not Spud Webb, not Nate Robinson. At out of all his accomplishments, that might be his biggest. A trophy can’t do that justice. That is why this is the Year of Thomas.