BOSTON — Leave it to one of the biggest guys in the Boston Celtics’ locker room to boil down Isaiah Thomas’ All-Star candidacy.
“The guy averages 20 [points] and 7 [assists] and he’s 5-foot-2 — how do you not put somebody like that in the All-Star Game?” Jared Sullinger wondered after Thomas’s late-game efforts lifted the Celtics to a 110-101 triumph over theChicago Bulls on Friday at TD Garden.
Before Friday’s tilt, the Celtics distributed a one-sheet titled, “Isaiah Thomas, All-Star Candidate” that detailed key statistical reasons for Thomas’ inclusion in next month’s game in Toronto. It noted how Thomas is:
” The only player in the league averaging 20-plus points, 6-plus assists, and fewer than 3 turnovers per game.
” Second among Eastern Conference guards in Player Efficiency Rating at 21.8 (trailing only fan-voted starter Kyle Lowry, 22.9).
” Third in the East in scoring per 48 minutes at 31.9 points (trailing only LeBron James at 33.7 and Paul George at 32.1).
” One of six players in the NBA to average better than 20 points and 6.5 assists per game (Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curryand Lowry the others).
” One of seven players to record five 30-plus-point games this season (James, George, Reggie Jackson, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan the others)
And yet the sheet might have left off one of the more compelling reason that East coaches should consider Thomas when they vote by Tuesday on seven reserves, including two backcourt players and two wild-card selections: Thomas’ crunch-time play.
For all of Boston’s late-game struggles this season, Thomas has routinely shouldered his team’s scoring load during the final minutes of crunch-time games (the score within five points in the final five minutes). Thomas is averaging 37.9 points per 36 minutes in crunch time, ranking him fourth in the NBA behind only Curry, Jackson and James. But Thomas’ field goal percentage (46.6) is the best of that bunch, and he takes care of the ball better than that pack, too (while each of those players averages 4-plus turnovers per 36 minutes, Thomas is at just 1.8, a ridiculous number for a point guard who runs the offense in late-game situations).
So, as if to hammer home his abilities, Thomas elevated his play in crunch time Friday night. The Bulls had whittled a 16-point deficit to one with under five minutes to play. When Chicago missed a chance to pull ahead, Thomas took over.
At the very moment Celtics legendary color commentator Tommy Heinsohn was noting that Thomas was having trouble getting to his preferred spots because of Aaron Brooks’ defense, Thomas blew past Brooks on the right side and finished a right-handed layup before Pau Gasol could shuffle over to help with 4:29 to play.
About two minutes later, after a ball reversal left Thomas with space on the left side of the floor, he again accelerated past Brooks, got a little seal from Kelly Olynyk on the baseline and finished a nifty left-handed layup on the other side of the glass to put Boston up seven with 2:35 to play.
With under 90 seconds to play, Thomas commanded three defenders while probing his way toward the basket. As he elevated near the paint, Gasol blocked his path to the rim, and Thomas contorted his body in mid-flight before delivering a perfect wrap-around pass to Sullinger for an easy layup. Thomas stood at midcourt imploring fans to get loud as the Garden saluted Boston’s late-game efforts with a standing ovation before two Thomas freebies pushed the lead to double digits in the final minute.
Thomas finished with a team-high 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting, with 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and a turnover over 31 minutes. The Bulls had gashed Boston with third-quarter pick-and-rolls that led to easy points in the paint, but Thomas made sure the game didn’t get away in the fourth quarter.
“I just wanted to be aggressive and get to the hoop,” Thomas said. “I thought we were settling for a lot of jump shots that we weren’t making and they were the more aggressive team. I just tried to make something happen, get in the paint and see what I had.”
Boston is a mere 11-14 in crunch-time games this season and players have acknowledged they must find ways to win such contests. Thomas gave Boston a spark in close games during last season’s second-half surge to the playoffs and has acknowledged that winning them is particularly key in a crowded Eastern Conference.
Not only is he helping his team, but Thomas might be helping his All-Star case. With Lowry voted a starter Thursday, it further cleared a path to a reserve spot, even with heavy competition from the likes of Butler, DeRozan, Wall and Jackson.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has hinted that Thomas’s fourth-quarter efforts help distinguish him and said he’ll continue to lobby for his point guard.
“I talk to coaches all the time, whether it’s on the phone or whether it’s before the game or after the game, [and] it’s like I said the other day: [Coaches] have to come up to their own conclusions,” Stevens said. “But a guy that impacts a team — and we’ve certainly had some games that we’d like to have back, but we’ve been a very competitive team all year and really since [Thomas has] been here — and then makes you game plan for him are the types of guys that should earn the All-Star nod. And he’s a guy that makes you game plan for him.
“Our team is different when Isaiah’s got the ball and on the floor and the amount of attention that he creates. I said the other day, I vote for guys that I have a little fear of as far as you better come in with a couple of different thoughts about how you’re going to stop him. And I’m certain that other coaches feel that way about Isaiah.”