Ainge won’t for­get IT

Says he made ‘us a le­git­i­mate bas­ket­ball team’

Boston Herald - - SCOREBOARD - Twit­ter: @SteveBHoop

LAS VEGAS — Isa­iah Thomas has agreed to a one-year, $2 mil­lion min­i­mum deal to join the Nuggets. It will be his third team since be­ing traded from Bos­ton in the Kyrie Irv­ing deal at the end of last Au­gust, but his fin­ger­prints are still on the Celtics.

Had Thomas not come to the C’s in Fe­bru­ary 2015, dragged them into the play­offs that year and led them from 40 wins that sea­son to 48 and 53 in the ones that fol­lowed, the Celts may never have been viewed as at­trac­tive enough to free agents. Maybe Al Hor­ford and Gordon Hay­ward come any­way, but they would have been look­ing at a far less suc­cess­ful club and had to take a far greater leap of faith. And Isa­iah was ob­vi­ously a big part in get­ting Irv­ing, even though in­juries and other team is­sues made it a poor fit for him in Cleve­land.

Some Bos­ton fans have ex­pressed ire with Thomas for him be­ing open about want­ing a big con­tract (he would smil­ingly talk about the Brinks truck when asked) and the whole trib­ute video mess that never should have been a big deal. But there’s strong ev­i­dence that the Celtics aren’t where they are now — fa­vorites to win the East­ern Con­fer­ence this com­ing year — if Danny Ainge doesn’t steal him from Phoenix two and a half years ago (you also got Jonas Jere­bko out of that deal).

“Isa­iah added cred­i­bil­ity to our team by mak­ing us a le­git­i­mate bas­ket­ball team,” Ainge told the Her­ald yes­ter­day. “And on top of that he was very en­ter­tain­ing.

“But he was all-in. He was all-in for the team. He was re­cruit­ing Al Hor­ford to come. He was re­cruit­ing Gordon Hay­ward to come to play with him. He’s earned a lot of re­spect in my eyes.

“He was a big part in the per­cep­tion of our team at that time, no doubt.”

The Celtics were 12 games un­der .500 when they traded for Thomas, and they went 20-10 the rest of the way with Isa­iah scor­ing 19.0 points to lead them. He threw in 22.2 and 28.9 in the en­su­ing sea­sons, giv­ing the C’s a guar­an­teed scor­ing source as they climbed the East lad­der.

“I would say that Isa­iah did a lot for our fran­chise,” said Ainge. “He did a lot for the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion. He did a lot for our coaches and play­ers. He took a lot of pres­sure off every­body be­cause he was a dom­i­nant of­fen­sive player for two and a half years.” And more.

“He en­ter­tained our fans. He com­peted at a very high level. He was tough as nails, and he was a big-time fourth-quar­ter guy,” said Ainge. “He brought a lot of elec­tric­ity and ex­cite­ment to the Gar­den.

“I’ll al­ways be grate­ful for Isa­iah. And on top of that, I loved him as a kid. Him and his wife, Kayla, they’re two of my fa­vorite peo­ple. They were a joy to be around.

“Isa­iah was all-in. I’ll al­ways be grate­ful for that. He was all-in. He was 100 per­cent in for the Bos­ton Celtics when he was here. And he was that way in Sacramento when he was the 60th pick. He was all-in there, and I think that’s prob­a­bly why coach (Mike) Malone wants him back (Malone is now the coach in Denver). But I thought Isa­iah was a good team­mate. He was a good Celtic.”

And he im­pressed oth­ers around the league. When Thomas’ agree­ment with the Nuggets hit the news, Dwyane Wade tweeted, “I. Can’t. Wait. @isa­iath­omas go do what you’ve done your whole life and that’s make ev­ery­one swal­low their words. They can’t mea­sure your heart cuz!”

Evan Turner, now a Trail Blazer but a mate with Thomas on the Celts, tweeted, “I.T. About to be the man again. He’s go­ing to get the nuggets to the play­offs, for sure!”

Cer­tainly Thomas is in the right place to get his game and hoop rep­u­ta­tion back in or­der af­ter fight­ing last year through the hip in­jury he suf­fered with the Celtics. Malone is an Isa­iah be­liever.

“He was a guy that trusted me from the jump,” Thomas said two years ago when the Celtics were in Denver. “He be­lieved in me, and when he was able to coach me he al­lowed me to play through mis­takes, al­lowed me to be my­self and some­one that was a hun­dred per­cent real with me from Day 1. So some­one that I’m re­ally close to, and we talk to this day.”

Said Malone that day, “I saw a young man who had a huge, huge heart, a tremen­dous work ethic, a gym rat, a true stu­dent of the game and a guy that you could never bet against him. He was al­ways about, ‘I’m go­ing to prove every­body wrong.’

“We had a great re­la­tion­ship. He played un­be­liev­able bas­ket­ball for me in that one year in Sac — 20 points and 6 as­sists (20.3 and 6.3 per game). I was hop­ing he’d be back, but ob­vi­ously that wasn’t the case. But to see him go from Sac to Phoenix and now to Bos­ton and to be a peren­nial All-Star and to be the No. 1 scorer in the fourth quar­ter is just … I’m so happy for him. I’m not sur­prised, but I’m very happy for be­cause every­thing he stands for. I’m a huge Isa­iah Thomas fan.”

So is Ainge, who ac­knowl­edged that, while the bas­ket­ball side of him ob­vi­ously had to make the trade for Irv­ing, it was hard to see Thomas go.

“Are you kid­ding me? That was very dif­fi­cult,” Ainge said. “You know, mak­ing the deals for Isa­iah and Avery (Bradley) were two of the tough­est things I’ve had to do in this job. I’ll al­ways have a fond place for those guys and root for them and cheer for their suc­cess. But, yeah, those were two hard moves to make.”

Yet a lit­tle bit of Thomas re­mains be­cause of the hand he had in build­ing what the Celtics have be­come.


NUGGETS OF TRUTH: Isa­iah Thomas, who signed a one-year deal with Denver worth $2 mil­lion, proved his value to Danny Ainge (right) and the Celtics dur­ing his two-plus sea­sons with the team.

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