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Celtics' Isaiah Thomas making a case for a star turn

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is steadily improving his game this season. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Comcast SportsNet New England broadcast returned from a fourth-quarter TV timeout Monday by highlighting a big scoring night for Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas against the New Orleans Pelicans. After showing clips of Thomas knocking down a couple 3-pointers and a one-foot runner, color commentator Brian Scalabrine -- in his booming Scalabrine voice -- sealed the segment by declaring, "Isaiah Thomas is absolutely destroying this Pelicans defense."

Unbeknownst to Scalabrine, who was watching the highlights roll on a courtside monitor, Thomas was standing right in front of him grabbing a piece of gum before checking back into the game. Thomas smiled wide and appeared to nod in agreement with the sentiment, much to the amusement of a producer seated beside Scalabrine and play-by-play man Mike Gorman.

Thomas finished with a team-high 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting as the Celtics defeated the host Pelicans 111-93 to conclude a five-game road trip. Most of Thomas' output, including three of the four 3-pointers he made in as many attempts, came in the first half and, when Boston stretched out its lead a bit after the intermission, it allowed Thomas a longer-than-usual fourth-quarter break.

After the game, Thomas joked to reporters, "I should have shot more."

The NBA's 2016 All-Star balloting will open soon and while Boston has thrived in large part because of balanced contributions throughout its roster this season, it's Thomas that is Boston's best chance to send a player to Toronto in February.

With Monday's win, Thomas leapfrogged New Orleans' Anthony Davis (who Boston limited to 16 points on 8-of-21 shooting) and now sits seventh in the NBA in scoring per 48 minutes. The 5-foot-9 Thomas is averaging 32.4 points per 48 minutes. The six players ahead of him? Stephen Curry (45.3), Russell Westbrook (37.4), Paul George (36.5), James Harden (35.9), Blake Griffin (34.1), and LeBron James (34).

And it should be noted that Thomas was slow out of the gates this season. He missed at least nine shots per game in Boston's first nine games. He still averaged 20.8 points per game in that span, but shot just 39.1 percent overall and 29.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston's offensive rating in that nine-game span was a meager 100.4.

In the 12 games since, Thomas has bumped up to 21.2 points per game, but is shooting 46.4 percent overall and 37 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston's offensive rating while he's on the floor in that 12-game span is a whopping 109.1.

Thomas entered Tuesday's action ranked 17th in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating. The next Boston player on that list? Jared Sullinger at No. 63. Avery Bradley (92nd) and Kelly Olynyk (95) are Boston's only other players in the top 100.

For the season, Thomas is averaging 21 points, 6.3 assists, and 2.2 rebounds over 31.1 minutes per game. He's played almost exclusively as a starter because of Boston's backcourt injuries and hasn't seen any downturn in production after being the Celtics' bench spark last season.

The Celtics have been a different team since Thomas' arrival. Boston went 20-10 after his arrival at last February's trade deadline and surged to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Add in this year's 12-9 mark and Boston owns a 0.627 winning percentage in his Thomas' first 51 games in Boston.

Thomas has also embraced the role as a facilitator this season. His assist percentage is at a career-high 34.6 percent, which ranks 12th overall in the NBA among players with at least 15 games played. Thomas' 9.8 assists per 48 minutes are second among that MVP-caliber six pack that reside above him in points per 48 minutes, with only Westbrook better at 13.3 per 48 minutes.

Thomas' impact is hammered home by Boston's on/off court splits. Boston's offensive rating during his 654 minutes of court time is 105.3 (second best on the team among regulars, trailing only backcourt mate Avery Bradley). The Celtics' offensive rating plummets to 95 during Thomas' 354 minutes on the bench.

Boston's defensive rating of 98.8 with Thomas on the floor is one of the highest among regulars and dips to 93.8 when he's off the court, but part of that is due to how dominant Boston's switch-happy second unit has been. In a small three-game sample when coming off the bench, Thomas' defensive rating dips to 94.9, more in line with the bench average.

The league's player tracking data does suggest Thomas' opponents are shooting 47.9 percent against him, 4.9 percent above those players' season averages. Thomas has gotten bullied near the basket (opponents are shooting 79.3 percent against him inside of 6 feet, or 19.7 percent above their average). Thomas running with the starters puts him alongside ball-hounds Bradley and Jae Crowder and helps limit how much teams are able to exploit his size.

Before the season, Thomas said earning an All-Star berth was one of his primary goals.

"I definitely feel like I can be an All-Star. I’m not just saying that. I honestly feel that way," Thomas said. "With hard work and dedication and just taking my craft serious. And, with the opportunity given with the Boston Celtics, I feel like I can reach that goal."

Thomas currently ranks eighth among all NBA point guards in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus metric. Three of the guards ahead of him reside in the Eastern Conference in Toronto's Kyle Lowry, Detroit's Reggie Jackson, and Washington's John Wall. It hammers home that Thomas has plenty of competition for an All-Start spot, but if balloters are looking to reward Boston should the Celtics maintain their high level of play, he'll get plenty of consideration.

Thomas will have a national stage to showcase his talents on Wednesday when the Celtics host Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls (7 p.m., ESPN). Thomas had one of his worst nights of the season during a national TV game against the Atlanta Hawks last month, but has typically embraced the national spotlight.

It's games like these that could help determine whether he'll get an international spotlight in February.