BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics were clinging to a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of Wednesday's triumph over the visiting Toronto Raptors when Isaiah Thomas sneaked free to the corner and drilled a 3-pointer. As the Garden crowd erupted, Thomas turned towards the baseline and pointed at actor Mark Wahlberg, one of those celebrating fans. Wahlberg acknowledged Thomas before tugging on his Red Sox cap and settling back into his front-row seat.
"Once they showed [Wahlberg] on the JumboTron, I had to find out where he was," Thomas said. "I hit the shot, I definitely had to point, too. ... So we got a little friendship brewing."
In the 13 months since arriving in Boston, Thomas has elevated to All-Star status on the court and his celebrity is rapidly increasing off it, as evidenced by not only the Wahlberg interaction but the throng of Celtics fans who showed up to meet Thomas at recent grand openings for Modell's Sporting Goods and Tasty Burger.
On Saturday night, Thomas returns to Phoenix for only the second time since the deadline deal that delivered him to Boston in February 2015. After leading the Celtics to a win over the Suns in Boston in January, Thomas suggested that playing the Suns is just another game to him and that he felt he had something to prove only when he visited in the immediate aftermath of last year's trade.
Not to kick the Suns while they're down, but Thomas' visit offers another chance to reflect on the divergent directions of the franchises since the swap. The Celtics were 20-31 (.392) at the time of the Thomas trade, but are 62-41 (.602) since. The Suns were 29-25 (.537) before the Thomas deal and 30-69 since (.303).
Last month, Phoenix Suns general manager -- and former assistant general manger for the Celtics -- Ryan McDonough admitted that he wished he had a mulligan on the Thomas trade. All the Suns got in the Thomas deal was Marcus Thornton, who departed as a free agent the summer after the deal, and Cleveland's 2016 first-round pick, which projects to be No. 28 this June.
Thomas returns to Phoenix playing maybe the best basketball of his career. For the month of March, Thomas ranks sixth in the league while averaging 26.2 points per game. What's more, he's shooting 47.7 percent from the field, which is second only to Kevin Durant (51.1 percent) among those top six scorers (a pack that also includes Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan). It's also about 5 percent above Thomas' season field goal percentage and reflects his growing efficiency as a scorer.
Asked about his red-hot month of March, Thomas said: "We’ve been winning a little bit [lately], so it all feels good. I’m just in a good rhythm right now to where guys are finding me, I’m knocking down shots, I’m just being really aggressive. And ..."
As Thomas was speaking, a towel lobbed from the other side of the locker room by Celtics big man Amir Johnson smacked Thomas in the face (well, he did say his teammates were finding him). Unfazed by the flying object, Thomas cracked a joke about Johnson and continued with his media confab, making the 6-foot-9 forward/center only the latest big man unable to deter him.
ESPN Stats and Info notes that Thomas leads all guards in paint points per game in the month of March. He's averaging 10.9 points in the paint per game, which ranks 11th in the league overall this month and is more paint points than the likes of centers Hassan Whiteside (10.7), Anthony Davis (10.2), and Dwight Howard (9.5).
If Thomas' play this month is still flying quietly under the radar, consider this note from Stats and Info: Thomas is essentially putting up the same sort of numbers as Curry this month. The reigning league MVP is averaging 1.4 points per game higher, but doing it less efficiently (Curry is averaging 20.7 shots per game; Thomas is putting up his numbers on just 17.7. Curry's PER (27.9) is only 0.6 points higher this month.
The Celtics visit Curry and the Warriors next Friday on ESPN. By that point, Thomas might have shuffled himself ahead of Celtics legend Larry Bird for a notable Boston scoring streak.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Bird holds the Celtics' record for the longest single-season streak for outright scoring leader after putting together a 13-game stretch during the 1987-88 season. Thomas currently ranks second on that list having been Boston's outright leading scorer in the past 11 games -- no minor accomplishment considering the balanced nature of this Boston team (though the absence of Jae Crowder has increased the scoring burden for Thomas).
In order to get the record, Thomas is going to have to do it against some high-caliber competition. After Phoenix, the Celtics visit Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers then Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Asked about Thomas' recent play this week, towel-lobbing Johnson said, "Unbelievable. All-Star. His game play just speaks for itself. He’s one of our leaders on the team and what he does on the court definitely surprises us all. But we know what he can do."