Moxie, spunk, swagger. Call it whatever you want, but Isaiah Thomas has it.
He's the little guy that loves the big moment. Sometimes that passion gets the better of him -- like it did on Sunday night when he encountered a referee with a short fuse who ejected him during the fourth quarter of an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers -- but then there are times like Monday's return to Phoenix where Thomas produced a pair of critical late-game buckets and stared down his former teammates in the final moments of Boston's triumph.
"They probably thought I was going to try to go off on them," Thomas told reporters after the game. He paused a beat before cracking, "Which I was; I was trying to."
Thomas produced his second 21-point outing in as many nights with the Celtics. The big difference from Sunday to Monday was that he was on the court in crunch time against the Suns and came up with the big shots that he's not afraid to take.
The Suns had whittled a 20-point deficit to 1 with 1:47 to play. Thomas dribbled off a couple pick-and-roll attempts and when Brandon Knight -- one of the backcourt replacements that Phoenix brought in at the deadline -- dared to go underneath a Tyler Zeller screen, Thomas rerouted, pulled up, and drilled a 3-pointer while being fouled as Knight raced to contest.
After the shot, Thomas turned and stared at the Phoenix bench before heading to the free throw line.
Up five with about a minute to play, Thomas came up with a steal. At the other end, he took the shot clock down to about five seconds before going into full-on attack mode. He crossed over on Bledsoe, kicked on the jets while splitting a pair of Suns defenders near the free throw line, and finished a reverse layup in traffic with 40 seconds to play. This time he couldn't muffle a smile as he stared at the Phoenix bench headed back up court, and just kept staring as he made his way to the Boston bench when the Suns called timeout.
Thomas stressed after the game that his stares were not out of hostility, though he certainly had a little extra motivation against the team that traded him away four days earlier. Thomas explained, "When I get out on the court, I don't have any friends."
He's got a whole bunch of new friends in Boston. Thomas has quickly endeared himself to this fan base with not only his offensive talents, but the manner in which he plays the game. And his ability to step up in crunch-time situations is key for the Celtics.
Up until a month ago, the Celtics really struggled in close games during Brad Stevens' first 18 months on the job. Boston has been routinely competitive, but its offense often faltered in the final minutes of close games.
Even before Thomas arrived, Boston had started to turn the corner a bit. Avery Bradley and Evan Turner each hit multiple clutch late-game shots over the past month and that's a big reason why Boston is 6-5 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes since winning a nail-biter in Portland on Jan. 22. Boston had been 5-15 in those games over the first three months of the season.
Now the Celtics have a player that doesn't just make late-game plays, but he wants the ball in his hands in crunch-time moments.
"Isaiah's just Isaiah -- he makes big plays," childhood friend Bradley told reporters after Monday's win. "He lives for games like this. He has confidence in himself. He's going to be big for this team."
Thomas ranks 24th in the NBA in clutch scoring (baskets made in the final five minutes of games within five points). He's generated 59 points on 52 percent shooting over just 80 total minutes of floor time.
Of players currently on Boston's roster, only Bradley (66 points in 100 minutes) has a higher scoring total in crunch time (albeit with 20 more minutes of floor time). The three other players in the Celtics' crunch-time lineup on Monday night -- Zeller, Turner, and Jae Crowder -- have combined for 52 crunch-time points for Boston this season.
Not since Paul Pierce got traded away ushering in the rebuild have the Celtics had a player that they could give the ball to in crunch time and just get out of his way. Thomas' presence will also create for others like Bradley and Turner, but it's the way that Thomas embraces the big-moment role that makes him so valuable.
And when Thomas stared at the Phoenix bench, you couldn't help but recall Pierce, who always enjoyed the role of villain (remember the bow at Madison Square Garden?)
Maybe it's just a bit of a honeymoon period with a new team, but Thomas' numbers have been excellent through two games. Boston's offensive rating spikes to 111.2 when he's on the court, more than 10 points better than the team's season average. (It's worth noting here that, in Dallas, the Mavericks' offensive rating has dipped nearly 10 points in the 31 games since acquiring Rondo).
Thomas is giving the Celtics the sort of things they so desperately needed since Stevens arrived: A player who can create for himself in the pick-and-roll, gets to the foul line with regularity (7 free throws per game), and embraces the big moments. It might not change Boston's fate this season -- the Celtics are 2 games back of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, but have three other teams in front of them seeking to sneak into the same postseason spots -- but the future is bright with Thomas under contract for three more seasons.
Eventually the conversation surrounding Thomas will shift to whether he should be a starter, but there doesn't seem to be any need to rush that quite yet. Thomas has done well in the sixth-man role and his playing time has climbed a bit from his stint in Phoenix (even after he missed the final 10 minutes of Sunday's game after getting ejected). Down the road, maybe a Tacoma-heavy starting backcourt of Thomas and Bradley makes sense, as it might be easiest to move a rookie like Smart to the reserve spot.
Regardless of how it plays out, all three guards are going to get heavy minutes, regardless of how much attention the lineup chatter will eventually draw.
For now, it's simply encouraging that Thomas has been able to do what he has without a real opportunity to immerse himself in the playbook and get comfortable with his teammates. It hasn't taken him long to show that crunch time is his time.