By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A few weeks ago, bringing up the idea of Isaiah Thomas as an MVP candidate was a far-fetched suggestion outside the city of Boston. The 5-foot-9 point guard is starting to change that narrative though as he combines fourth quarter heroics with potent scoring through a torrid stretch of games in the last month.
The newly crowned Eastern Conference Player of the Month strengthened his case for MVP consideration with his latest performance during the Celtics’ second half comeback win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night. He posted a game-high 44 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter, which has led to five-game winning streak and the second seed in the Eastern Conference for Boston.
“It was big,” Thomas said of Boston’s first win over the Raptors this year. “It feels like every game is close against them and they always beat us, so it was big for us to not put our heads down and not get discouraged and keep at it. We played a hell of an end to the third and fourth quarter tonight. A lot of guys stepped up.”
With Avery Bradley sidelined for eight straight games with an Achilles injury, a heavier onus has fallen on Thomas from a scoring standpoint and he’s continued to rise above everyone’s expectations. In seven of his last nine games overall, he’s scored 35 or more points. If that’s not impressive enough, take a closer look at his production during fourth quarters during the C’s latest five-game winning streak:
Those kinds of numbers had Raptors head coach Dwane Casey comparing Thomas to the likes of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan before Wednesday’s. Brad Stevens wasn’t willing to go that far with the comparison, but he’s appreciative of the incredible stretch the NBA’s No. 2 overall scorer has put together.
“I don’t really get into those arguments,” Stevens said of the Bird/Jordan comparison for Thomas. “Other people do. So I’ll let everybody else argue away, but he’s playing at a really high level, he’s doing a lot of good things.”
The 27-year-old is now averaging over 10 points per game for the season in the fourth quarter, and he’s on pace to have the highest points in a quarter average in the past 21 years. Opposing defenses know the Celtics are trying to find him at the end of games, and Stevens remains in awe of how Thomas overcomes that ball denial with his speed and savvy.
“First of all, it’s hard to keep a point guard from having the ball, because he can bring it up if you really need him to,” Stevens explained. “But we just try to mix it up as much as possible with him on the ball, off the ball, screening, cutting, whatever the case may be. And eventually, things like Jaylen (Brown)’s layup and other guys’ layups, you know – you know, Isaiah’s screening to get them open, and he’ll never get much, get much talk about that. And that’s just kind of the way the game works. Somebody’s setting the screen to free him up, somebody’s making a cut to empty a space, somebody’s doing their job and he’s doing an incredible job of taking advantage of it.”
Thomas deflected the credit from Stevens and tried to credit his coach for his gameplan instead.
“Brad does a great job of knowing when to put me off the ball, especially when we have Marcus [Smart] or Terry [Rozier] in the game. They call the right plays for me and like I said, whether I got the ball or not, guys set screens to get me open. I try to do the rest,” he said.
With the Celtics now standing just 2.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the East, Isaiah’s heroics have put Boston squarely among the NBA’s elite. The question now is just how long he’ll be able to sustain this run and further cement his name in the franchise record books.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.