By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Striving to be the best is part of Isaiah Thomas’ DNA. He knows that at 5-foot-9, the damage he can do is limited compared to some of the titans who grace the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped his determination one iota.
The Celtics’ leader on the floor is in the middle of an incredible season for Boston, tied with Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan for the Eastern Conference lead at 28.2 points per game. He’s dropped 30 or more points in 11 different games this season, including a career-high 52 points against the Heat a few weeks back. The little man is on an unreal streak right now, scoring at least 20 points in his last 23 games.
What’s grabbing everyone’s attention is that Thomas saves the best for last, averaging a league-best 9.8 points in the fourth quarter. He’s scored 20 points in the final frame three times this season, while no one else has done it more than once (via ESPN Stats & Info).
Thomas’ numbers, and when most of those numbers occur, have solidified a phenomenal All-Star resume, and will likely land the guard on his second-straight appearance in the mid-season spectacle. There’s even a push to make him the starting guard for the Eastern Conference, from Boston fans and even a few greats of the game.
One former Celtics great is going even further, saying Thomas should be in the conversation as the NBA’s MVP as we near the midpoint of the 2016-17 season. In his always-entertaining “Area 21” segment on TNT, former Celtics champion Kevin Garnett implored Shaquille O’Neal to consider Isaiah among the best in the league.
“Real talk: If [Russell] Westbrook and James Harden weren’t having the years they’re having, you would consider [Thomas] an early candidate for MVP, just because of what he does for his team,” Garnett told Shaquille O’Neal.
With the Celtics in Atlanta for Friday night’s tilt against the Hawks, Thomas joined the duo on set, clearly taken aback that Garnett would heap such praise.
“I don’t really care about what anybody else says, but my peers and the people who did it before me because they really know what it takes to be great, and to hear stuff like that from KG is just — I always say all the time, it doesn’t seem real to hear the guys that did it before me and such greats and legends like those two are,” he said. “To talk highly of me is unbelievable.”
That talk carried over to Boston’s Friday morning shootaround at Philips Arena. Asked about his standing in the MVP race, Thomas knows his place.
“Right behind Westbrook and Harden,” he said. “They’re having years that you can’t take away what they’re doing. They’re getting triple-doubles every other game. I’m not close to that. But, in a normal year, I’d probably be up there.”
Harden is averaging 28.6 points per game (third overall in the NBA) and an NBA-leading 11.8 assists per game for the 31-10 Houston Rockets, while Westbrook is averaging a triple-double with 31 points, 10.5 assists and 10.7 rebounds for the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thomas won’t be beating out either of those two for the MVP unless he elevates his game about six more levels, and even that probably won’t be enough. But as with his All-Star push last season, Thomas is getting some love that he very much deserves, from fans around the league and some of the greats to play the game.