BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was explaining his decision to play point guard Isaiah Thomas the entire fourth quarter on Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets when he half-jokingly deadpanned, "You know, he didn't do anything all week."
Thomas sat out four games while rehabbing from a strained groin and missed a travel-heavy stretch for the Celtics, who pingponged from Houston to Orlando to Boston to Oklahoma City to San Antonio over a nine-day stretch, during which they endured three gut-punch losses and a bomb threat to their team plane. Limping home barely above .500 and with their confidence rattled, the Celtics needed a jolt -- and Thomas, despite the obvious rust from his absence, was ready to provide it.
Thomas logged nearly 35 minutes while scoring a game-high 26 points. That included playing a team-high 19 minutes, 48 seconds in the second half, while helping the Celtics rally from a double-digit deficit for a much-needed 96-88 triumph over the Hornets at TD Garden.
Sure, it helped that Charlotte was missing star guard Kemba Walker and the Hornets shot just 32.7 percent from the floor. The Celtics, ravaged by injuries early in the year, felt little sympathy while cranking up their defensive intensity in the second half.
But after appearing lethargic out of the gates in what Boston guard Avery Bradley had termed a "must-win" game, the Celtics needed Thomas to pick them up a bit in the second half.
With help from block-happy Al Horford, whose three third-quarter swats breathed some life into the Celtics, Thomas scored 16 of his points in the second half. It says something that Thomas missed four of the five shots he took in the fourth quarter and still scored a team-high seven points in the frame (equaled by Jae Crowder) and helped Boston pull away after the Hornets briefly took the lead.
With the Celtics clinging to a one-point lead with less than six minutes to play, Thomas raced ahead after a Horford steal and drew a flagrant foul when Marco Belinelli broke up his layup attempt. Thomas made both free throws, and Crowder added two more after being fouled when Boston maintained possession. On the next trip down, with Belinelli defending, Thomas drilled a 3-pointer from the wing as part of what would ultimately stretch to a 15-0 run.
Thomas has averaged less than seven fourth-quarter minutes this season, but Stevens was taking no chances on Friday.
"I just felt like I’ve seen too many games where you make a comeback and then the other team takes control and goes out to a lead," Stevens said. "And we’ve seen that in our games at Charlotte, where we’ve lost the lead and then got it back and pulled away, and I just thought those first four minutes in the [fourth] quarter were really important."
After making his joke about Thomas' downtime while rehabbing, Stevens added, "In all sincerity, he’s been working really hard to get back. But the rest of those guys have been all over the place, and now we needed -- I told him the other day on the phone, 'On Friday, you’re going to need to really give us a spark.'"
Thomas said he will let Stevens decide if he plays the entire fourth quarter more frequently moving forward, but the guard said he enjoyed the challenge, especially while trying to get his wind back after missing four games.
"[Thomas] was gassed," Crowder said with a smile. "He was talking in the locker room about how gassed he was.
"But obviously, Isaiah gives us a great chance to win the game."
Thomas said he was happy, but surprised, that Stevens played him the entire fourth quarter.
"I was like, 'Yeah?' I just had to perform," Thomas said. "He brought me out a little early in the third, but I didn’t think he would bring me back that early in the fourth. So when he called my name, I was surprised. But that’s him, so I was ready to play."
Thomas ranks third in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging 7.6 points. Only Portland's Damian Lillard (8.2) and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook (10) average more points, but both players also average more fourth-quarter floor time. Nobody in the league takes more fourth-quarter free throws than Thomas, at four per game.
"[Thomas is] going to bring scoring for sure. He did a good job today -- missed a couple of bunnies, but it’s part of coming back," Crowder said. "He had good rhythm. And down the stretch, he made some good decisions, when to score and when to pass, so it was pretty good."
Horford, who flirted with a rare 5x5 game while putting up 18 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 blocks and 2 steals, said, "It helps tremendously [to have Thomas]. It helps all of us, just because it opens the floor even more. Teams have to play us honest. It’s just good to have him back."
For a Celtics team that was on the verge of slipping to .500 and desperately needed a win to start rebuilding its confidence, finding a way to pull out Friday's game will help as they head right back out for another road trip, with stops at Miami, Memphis and Indiana.
"We needed the win. No doubt," Crowder said. "We felt this was the one we had to have. We talked about it this morning and tried to take care of business."
The Celtics utilized their preferred starting lineup of Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Horford and Amir Johnson for only the 11th time this season. Boston is 8-3 when it has that starting five (though the Celtics leaned heavily on Jonas Jerebko in place of Johnson in the second half on Friday, when Charlotte was playing small).
Assuming they can stay healthy, the Celtics are eager to see what's possible, despite their uneven play to this point.
"We just have to somehow, some way, put it together," Thomas said. "We know we can be a very good basketball team. We just have to be a more complete basketball team; and every day, we have to expect to be great out of ourselves and play with a sense of urgency. I think that’s what Coach talked about [Friday] is we’ve got to want it more. We’ve got to want to win more, and we have to hate to lose. And I think guys had that mindset today."