BOSTON — Isaiah Thomas received a standing ovation from fans at TD Garden when he was shown on the JumboTron before the start of the second quarter of Wednesday night’s game between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
Thomas, who was dealt to Cleveland in late August with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick in exchange for Kyrie Irving, pounded his chest and waved to the crowd from in front of the Cavaliers bench.
At Thomas’ request, the Celtics did not show a prepared tribute video for him. He was sitting out the second night of a back-to-back after making his season debut in Cleveland’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday.
What started with a megadeal sending two future Hall of Famers to Brooklyn has turned into a master class in roster reshaping. Four years, 20 trades and a blockbuster point guard swap later, Boston is back on the fast track to title contention.
The ovation initially caught Thomas by surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting nothing to happen, especially this time with them asking not to do the tribute,” Thomas said. “But [the fans] showed their true colors, like they always do, and that’s — I keep saying it, but it’s genuine love on both sides. The fans are everything here.”
Thomas, wearing Cavaliers warm-up gear, joined his teammates on the bench late in the first quarter. Fans behind the visitors bench cheered as he took a spot near the Cleveland coaches. Thomas spent much of the game standing up in front of the Cavaliers bench and playfully jawing with many of his former teammates.
The Celtics spoiled Thomas’ return, handing the Cavaliers a 102-88 loss. After the game, Thomas embraced most of only four remaining former teammates, including Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca also sought out Thomas, and Irving did the same, sharing a hug with the man he was traded for over the summer.
“Just mutual respect,” Thomas said of Irving. “We’ve always respected each other, from the day we got drafted to playing on All-Star teams at the same time and things like that. So it’s just mutual respect.”
Thomas offered words of encouragement to his former teammates, including Rozier, who scored a team-high 20 points off the bench.
Isaiah Thomas said his hip has gotten a lot better but that he is still “far away” from being the player he was before his injury.
“[Thomas said to] just to keep going,” Rozier said. “He was one of the first people I watched in the league, just the little things he did on and off the court. I was just happy he’s on his way back, so I can guard him.”
Wearing a blue, hooded sweatshirt and a winter cap, Thomas was all smiles as he arrived at the Garden about 90 minutes before tipoff. He stopped to greet some familiar faces, and fans craning to see from near the visitor’s tunnel screamed his initials when they spied him walking toward the locker room.
Thomas, who said he hadn’t been to Boston since a dentist appointment in August before he was traded, joked that he nearly forgot to turn left into the visitors’ locker room because he was so accustomed to turning right to enter the home side.
“I almost walked that way in their locker room,” Thomas said with a laugh. “No, I mean, I love this city, I love this organization. They’ve given me the opportunity to be who I always wanted to be, and I can’t thank them enough. So there’s no hard feelings to anybody in this city or anybody in this organization. And I’m glad I’m back.
“Like I always said, it’s genuine love. And that’s for the rest of my life here.”
Thomas, who has admitted to being stung initially by the trade, had seemingly harbored a bit of frustration toward Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. He first said in October that he “might not ever talk to Danny again.”
But Thomas said that Ainge reached out after his return to action on Tuesday, and that they were on good terms again.
Ainge and Thomas crossed paths in the corridor near the Celtics’ locker room before Wednesday’s game. The two chatted briefly and embraced. Ainge then sat in his typical seat on the baseline near the visitors bench to watch the two Eastern Conference powers go at it.
“Have I forgiven Danny?” Thomas said. “He texted me last night, so yeah, we’re good.”
Thomas admitted to keeping close tabs on his former team during his rehab.
“I watch them a lot. I like how they play,” he said. “I love [coach] Brad Stevens. I love Marcus Smart, even though he flops all the time. I love Terry Rozier. I love the coaching staff. Like I said, there’s no hard feelings.”
Then, Thomas quipped, “The only hard feeling is Danny didn’t send me no Christmas card this year.”
After Boston’s win, Stevens was quick to point out how the Cavaliers were missing key players, including Thomas. Stevens had gushed before Wednesday’s game about how well Thomas played in his season debut on Tuesday while scoring 17 points in 19 minutes.
“First and foremost, I will always value him as a friend and person I got to be teammates with,” Stevens said. “It’s what you appreciate the most about team sports. Lost among all the talk about where people play and everything else is the fact that you did get to compete together. I appreciated that about him.
“It was great to watch him play [Tuesday] night. I thought that was fantastic. He added a dimension and element to their team. He starts the game and comes out earlier. LeBron comes out for a breather and he comes back with the second unit. Think about how many scorers and players you have out there with that. He’s gonna add quite a bit to that team, you can tell that.”
Thomas said that as he and the Cavaliers’ medical staff homed in on a potential return date last month, it became obvious to him that he would not play in Boston.
“I was out for seven months. There was no way I was going to come back against Boston and play 17 minutes,” he said. “It’s too big of an opportunity to just play against my former teammates, my former coaches, the city that gave me my biggest opportunity. I always wanted to play in this game, but I thought I would be back a little sooner to be able to play.”
Thomas said that he’s still far from being the player he was, but he hopes to be that player again down the road.
“Far away. Far away,” he said. “The hip has gotten a lot better. But it’s still movements that I’m scared to do, but it’s just because I’ve been out for so long. For the most part, when you get hurt, the mental side of things is the toughest part.”
“I want to be MVP one day,” Thomas added, “so I know anybody that takes seven months off isn’t just going to walk into doing that. I got a lot of work to do, but I’m happy about the progress, and I’m happy about everything that happened [Tuesday].”
Thomas irked some Boston fans when the Celtics made public his request to delay his tribute video. Cleveland’s other regular-season visit this season is Feb. 11, the day the Celtics will retire Paul Pierce’s jersey following their game against the Cavaliers.
“That’s Pierce’s night. But, like, the video tribute ain’t the whole night,” Thomas said. “I just wanted my family to be here to see it. That’s what it came down to. I wanted to be able to play. And I wanted my family to experience the love and appreciation this city and this organization is going to give me on that night.
“When my representatives reached out to these guys, they were all for it. They agreed on it. I don’t know why they’re so mad about it. I’m not taking nothing from Paul Pierce. He did 15 years here, so there’s nothing that I can take from him. But if they choose to do it that night, that would be great, and I would be honored. And my family and friends can see how much they appreciated me here.”
During lineup introductions, the Celtics introduced Crowder last and showed a brief video montage with Crowder highlights, both on the court and off. It ended with a clip of Crowder doing a pushup on the Garden floor before hitting a 3-pointer against the Toronto Raptors. A still screen with “Thank You, Jae!” appeared as fans gave him an ovation.
Crowder scored six points in 28 minutes against his old squad.
“I just wanted to win. I could have played like s— and got the win and been very happy,” Crowder said. “I ain’t into all that other stuff. I just like to win. Never been a stats guy. Even when I was here, I didn’t worry about my stats; I just wanted to win. I did whatever it takes to win. Tonight, those guys deserved to win.”