By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics finally have their signature win of the 2016-17 season, thanks to a giant performance from Isaiah Thomas.
The C’s guard scored a career-high 44 points in Boston’s thrilling 112-109 overtime victory over the Grizzlies in Memphis, with 24 of those points coming over the final 17 minutes of the contest. He put up those points on just 16 shot attempts from the field, including seven 3-pointers, while hitting all 17 of his free throws. He finished the night 10-for-16 from the floor.
Thomas went off after a frustrating first half, in which the Celtics were frustratingly held to just 31 points and Memphis built a 14-point advantage. The Grizzlies led by as much as 17 in the second half before Thomas took over. He scored eight points in the opening minutes of the second half, assisting on three other baskets. In the fourth quarter, when he loves to take his game to another level, Thomas put in nine points in the first two minutes.
If the Celtics needed a basket, Thomas was up to the task, pulling out everything from his bag of tricks. He drained a three to tie things up with just under eight minutes left in regulation. He went toe-to-toe with Memphis guard Mike Conley, who finished with 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting, as the duo traded triples with two minutes to go in regulation. Thomas answered Conley’s long-range strike to tie things at 95-95 with 1:38 left. A Conley driving hoop with 32 seconds left put the Grizzlies back up 97-95, but Thomas drove hard to the basket on the ensuing possession and once again found himself at the line with 27 seconds to go.
Of course, he hit both free throws to give everyone an extra five minutes of one of the NBA’s best games of the season.
In overtime, Thomas hit yet another triple with three minutes to go to put the Celtics up four, 104-100. It was the last shot he made from the field, but he calmly drained four freebies over the last 1:07, with his first pair giving Boston the lead for good, 107-106.
The offensive outpouring is even more impressive given Thomas had just eight points in the first half. With the C’s down big, assistant coach Jerome Allen told Thomas he might have to score 40 if they wanted to pull off a comeback.
Then Allen reversed his course, according to The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach: “Never mind. You’re not built to get 40.”
If we’ve learned anything about the 5-foot-9 Thomas, it’s that he’s always up for a challenge. No matter how big that challenge may be.
“I wasn’t trying to get 40, but I just knew I needed to be a little more aggressive on that end,” Thomas said after his career night. “My teammates found me and set screens and got me open and I just made shots.”
Thomas referred to himself as a “killa” in an on-floor interview with Comcast SportsNet right after the win. His teammates had another adjective for their scoring leader.
“He just got to scoring and he was unstoppable,” said Al Horford, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds on the night.
We’ve seen Thomas go off like this before, but Tuesday night was special for many reasons. He became just the fourth player over the last 30+ years to score 44 points on 16 or fewer field goals. Danny Ainge, the man who traded for Thomas nearly two years ago, is the only Celtics guard to score more points than Thomas’ 44 point outpouring over the last 50 years (via ESPN).
But most importantly, the Celtics walked away with a tough, hard-fought win in a very hostile environment. They still remain in the mess that is the second tier of the Eastern Conference, sitting third in the conference but only two games away from being out of the playoff picture, but Tuesday night is the kind of win, and performance, that Thomas and the Celtics feel could be the start to something special.
“This might turn the season around, for real,” said Thomas.