Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy stood in his familiar pose -- arms folded, thousand-yard stare -- at the start of a between-quarter interview with ESPN on Wednesday night. His Pistons had rallied within a point of the visiting Boston Celtics midway through the third quarter, but were staring at a 17-point deficit entering the final frame. Van Gundy was asked a simple question: What changed?
"Isaiah Thomas. We can't guard him at all," barked Van Gundy.
Thomas scored a season-high 34 points on a mere 17 shots and finished plus-35 over 30 minutes to lead the Celtics to a 113-103 triumph over the Pistons in a must-have game as part of Boston's playoff push.
Coupled with the Atlanta Hawks edging the Brooklyn Nets, Boston shuffled up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference as the Celtics own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Brooklyn. Boston maintains a one-game advantage over both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
There's plenty of work to be done in the Celtics' playoff quest, particularly with a home-and-home series looming against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that currently projects as Boston's first-round opponent. The Celtics will cross their fingers and hope the Cavaliers, with the No. 2 seed in hand, will choose rest for stars like LeBron James moving forward. But that's beyond Boston's control.
What the Celtics did have the ability to impact was Wednesday's game -- Boston's first and likely only regular-season appearance on national TV -- and Thomas made a strong case to the viewing public why he should be considered in the Sixth Man of the Year balloting.
The Celtics were clinging to that one-point lead midway through the third quarter when Thomas subbed in. Coming off a side pick-and-roll in transition, Thomas dribbled right through two Detroit big men before finishing with a left-handed layup. A minute later he got another transition opportunity and split the same two bigs while racing up the court, then finished over a help defender at the rim. Thomas was just getting warmed up.
Later in the third quarter, he waited for a Detroit big to dance away from the paint, then charged at the rim while racing past Reggie Jackson. He got the layup and a foul as Boston's lead ballooned to nine. Thomas collected a series of high-fives after the play, including one from head coach Brad Stevens near the Boston bench.
When the Pistons overcommitted to Thomas on the next trip down, Thomas fed Jae Crowder for another three-point play. Thomas' third-quarter dissection concluded with a pull-up 3-pointer in transition that sent Boston into the final frame up 91-74 and left Van Gundy looking like he had a case of indigestion.
"Just one of those nights," Thomas shrugged after the game, noting how he often found space to finish near the basket after dribbling through initial traffic.
Twenty-one years after the other Isiah Thomas played his final game in Detroit, his namesake paid homage to the NBA legend (and mentor). Thomas finished 10-of-17 shooting from the floor and made 10 of his 11 free throws. He added six assists and three rebounds while committing only two turnovers.
"[Thomas] was on," Celtics guard Marcus Smart told reporters. "One of those nights where a guy played unbelievable."
Added Stevens: "He demands attention. He's able to get to the rim some, get his own shot. He's excellent off those pick-and-rolls."
Thomas, acquired from the Phoenix Suns at the February trade deadline for Marcus Thornton and Cleveland's 2016 first-round pick, has been a revelation for a Boston team that was dreadful in the pick-and-roll before his arrival. Boston as a team hasn't skyrocketed since his arrival, but consider this: The Celtics' pick-and-roll ball handlers ranked 28th in the league, averaging 0.685 points per play before Thomas' arrival, according to Synergy Sports data.
Over 18 games with Boston, Thomas is averaging 0.978 points per play as pick-and-roll ball handler, which places him in the 93rd percentile among all league players. For comparison's sake -- and to showcase just how much of a boost he's provided there -- Rajon Rondo averaged 0.576 points per play in 22 games for Boston while ranking in the 16th percentile earlier this season.
Thomas has given the Celtics what they so desperately needed: a competent pick-and-roll player who could take advantage of playing alongside skilled personnel who space the floor. The Celtics' second unit has carried the team at times during this playoff push, in large part because of the way opponents must defend Thomas in fear of being gouged in a way similar to Detroit.
Thomas has also provided the fourth-quarter scoring Boston so clearly lacked in recent seasons. Entering Wednesday's game, Thomas had scored 37.7 percent of his total points in the fourth quarter this season (385 out of 1,022). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the highest percentage among the 104 players who have scored at least 800 points this season, ahead of Jamal Crawford (36.7 percent) and Aaron Brooks (35.6).
Thomas has already attempted 123 free throws since his arrival, the sixth-highest total for the Celtics this season. For a Boston team that often struggles to consistently generate offense, Thomas' ability to get to the line has helped avoid the long lulls that came when perimeter jumpers wouldn't fall.
Just look at Boston's offensive rating. Before the All-Star break, the Celtics averaged 101.0 points per 100 possessions (23rd overall) over the first 51 games of the season. Since the All-Star break, the offensive rating has climbed to 102.6 (15th overall).
But here's the stat that really pops: Boston's offense is 7.3 points better per 100 possessions with Thomas on the court, and the number is even more pronounced when you focus on the 18 games he's appeared in. The Celtics own an offensive rating of 108.8 when Thomas is on the court, and it nose-dives to 99.6 when he's off. For comparison's sake, only two teams have offensive ratings higher than 108.8 this season: the Los Angeles Clippers (110) and Golden State Warriors (109.3).
Thomas seems to be finding his form again lately after missing eight games last month due to a badly bruised back. He looks fearless going at the basket and is unafraid to draw contact. That's an encouraging sign as Boston looks to seal its playoff spot over the final four games of the season.
Thomas is not without his warts. The Bucks were able to exploit his size on the defensive end last week in a tough home loss for the Celtics. Boston's defensive rating is 105.3 when Thomas is on the court and drops 5.6 points without him on the floor.
But what he's done for the offense is undeniable. Celtics president Danny Ainge admitted recently that Thomas is the sort of player the team probably would have preferred to pick up in the offseason because his talents ensured Boston wouldn't slide all the way to a high lottery pick this season.
But even Ainge couldn't have predicted the way Thomas' arrival would further ignite a Celtics team that was already improving. Now Boston controls its playoff opportunity entering the final week of regular-season play. Skeptical at first, even Ainge has bought into the benefits of this team gaining postseason experience.
And nobody wants to extend the season more than Thomas, who hasn't sniffed the playoffs during his first three seasons in the league. He's admitted to scoreboard watching during recent games while keeping close tabs on Boston's playoff pursuit.
The Celtics are hopeful Thomas gets a chance to frustrate at least one other opposing coach after the regular season ends.