Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas suggested Friday that he recently huddled with head coach Brad Stevens to make a pitch for more fourth-quarter playing time. Stevens likes to keep his starters' minutes at a reasonable level, but Thomas finds himself getting antsy on the sideline, particularly given the number of close games Boston has played recently.
"I’d rather play [the fourth quarter] than any other quarter," Thomas said when asked about his message to Stevens.
For the second time in two nights, Thomas was inserted early in the fourth quarter Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers. He celebrated by scoring 13 of his game-high 37 points in the final frame to help the Celtics escape the Wells Fargo Center with a 107-106 triumph.
With the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead with five minutes remaining, Thomas scored 12 consecutive points for Boston. His outburst culminated in a fearless drive at 76ers rookie Dario Saric and a left-handed layup that broke the final tie of the night.
"He's really good. He's really, really good," Stevens told reporters in Philadelphia. "My advice to anybody is to talk whoever you work for into buying League Pass and watch him as much as you can. Because he's a fun guy to watch."
Thomas is the league's third-best scorer in the fourth quarter, with an average of 7.9 points per game in the final frame. Only Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (10.1) and Portland's Damian Lillard (8.3) sit in front of him, and both average more minutes in the fourth quarter.
On Saturday night, during a game in which Boston played from behind much of the first three quarters, Thomas seemed to carry the Celtics in the fourth. He was a bundle of energy after checking back in, and he simply wouldn't let Boston lose to the cellar-dwelling 76ers.
"I love the fourth quarter. I just want to win," Thomas told reporters in Philadelphia. "So whether it's making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it's about making the right plays."
Thomas has lobbied Stevens for more minutes throughout the season, half-joking that he'd like to play 48 (he'd settle for consistently playing 36 and currently averages 33.3 per game). Thomas seemed frustrated after subbing in for only the final five minutes of Wednesday's loss to the Detroit Pistons. He didn't talk to reporters that night and left TD Garden quickly after the game. He hinted that he chatted with Stevens in the aftermath to again plead his case to come back earlier in the fourth.
On Friday, with Boston down two with 8:31 remaining against the Sacramento Kings, Stevens brought Thomas back earlier than usual. Thomas struggled with his shot but chipped in seven points as Boston scrapped its way to a narrow victory.
On Saturday, Thomas came back with 7:56 to play and Boston clinging to a three-point lead. Thomas gave the Celtics an infusion of late-game energy. His hustle led to a transition dunk by rookie Jaylen Brown early in his fourth-quarter stint. After that, Thomas seemed to make a strong charge at the basket each time down, resulting in either a layup or free throws.
Consider this: In the season's first 19 games, Thomas' fourth-quarter offensive rating was a staggering 126 over an average of 6.6 minutes per game. That rating is 4.5 points higher than Boston's already robust fourth-quarter mark. Thomas has scored 151 fourth-quarter points overall, third-most in the league behind only Westbrook (172 points in 17 games) and Lou Williams (158 points in 22 games).
"He's just very relentless," Al Horford told reporters in Philadelphia. "He goes hard, and when he gets into that zone, he's fun to watch."
For the season, Thomas is averaging 26.3 points per game. That ranks him ninth in the league in scoring, just behind reigning MVP Stephen Curry. Thomas is second in the East in scoring behind only Toronto's DeMar DeRozan (27.9). Among the other top 10 scorers, only Westbrook and James Harden average more assists than Thomas. What's more, Thomas ranks seventh in the league in usage rate. Look at only the fourth quarter of games, and Thomas' usage rate spikes to second, behind just Westbrook.
Said Thomas: "I get ultra-aggressive in that fourth quarter, and that’s what I’ve always done. Some guys, they get a little tight, they get a little timid. I embrace it. I want to be great."