Isaiah Thomas isn't back, but he's back from the brink, and that's not nothing

Way back in the long, long ago of the spring of 2017, Isaiah Thomas had cultivated a reputation as one of the NBA’s premier late-game scorers. “The King in the Fourth,” they called him, in recognition of his repeated fourth-quarter dissections of opposing defenses designed specifically to stop him. The frequent deliveries of bucket after last-stanza bucket made Thomas an All-Star and All-NBA selection, and made the Boston Celtics a conference finalist.

You’re reading an NBA website in the middle of a Friday in March, so you know what happened next: the hip injury, the trade, the months on the shelf, the stunningly brutal stint in Cleveland, the jettisoning to Hollywood. At no point during his brief sojourn as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers did Thomas look anything like the fire of old on the offensive end, as he started the process of knocking off seven months of rust, working to rediscover his full burst and range of motion, and trying to find the rhythm on his jumper. Combine those struggles with the 5-foot-9 point guard’s well-established defensive shortcomings, and the Cleveland version of Thomas flat-out profiled as one of the very worst players in the NBA.

Through it all, though, Thomas insisted that all he needed was time and opportunity. He made the most out of both on Thursday, pouring in 29 points in 30 minutes — including 11 in the fourth — to go with six assists and four rebounds to help the Lakers cruise to an impressive 131-113 win over the Miami Heat in South Beach.

In his highest-scoring performance since Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, Thomas attacked the Heat in transition, dribbling past stationary defenders to gain the lane and taking advantage of backpedaling opponents to pull up for open jumpers. He worked off screens away from the ball to give himself a head start headed downhill into the paint off the catch.

He orchestrated in the pick-and-roll, snaking back and forth around screeners to find an angle to attack before finishing in traffic in the paint. He delivered passes on time and on target to roll men and cutters for easy scores. He pulled up with confidence off the bounce and fired quickly off the catch, nailing six of 11 3-point tries, including some deep looks.

Against a Heat team that ranks 10th in the NBA in points allowed per possession, he looked like … well, like Isaiah Thomas.

Isaiah Thomas turned in his best performance of the season in Thursday’s win over the Heat, as he continues to make his way back from a devastating hip injury.
Isaiah Thomas turned in his best performance of the season in Thursday’s win over the Heat, as he continues to make his way back from a devastating hip injury.

If you’ve been paying attention this season, this probably came as something of a shock to you. It did not shock Isaiah Thomas. From Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:

Earlier in the day, the former All-Star said if he is given “the same opportunity that I was given in Boston, I would do the same thing.”

It was hard to argue after Thursday’s performance, with Thomas trading big shots with Heat star Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter.

“I could do it,” Thomas said after the win. “I’ve done it before. I’m a scorer, I’m a guy that makes plays. So when given that opportunity, I’ve showed I can do it, but there’s no other way around it. I’m not here to prove to anybody I can do it, the world knows what I bring to the table.” […]

“If I play, I’m going to produce,” Thomas said. “That’s just who I am, that’s who I always been. Injury is not going stop me from doing that. Coach is going to put this team in the best position to win.”

You can certainly understand why Thomas frames things that way. He’s been an undersized underdog all his life, one whose rise has been fueled by the neverending conversion of slights, perceived or otherwise, into sustenance; when very few people believe you can do something, you’ve got to believe aggressively enough to bridge the gap. It certainly appeared, though, that injury did stop Thomas from producing in Cleveland, which put him in a very precarious position heading into the final two months of the season and beyond.

Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Back in Boston, he made no bones about his belief that any suitor would need to back up the Brinks truck with a maximum-salaried long-term deal to secure his services. But after the injury and the debacle in Ohio, which paired on-court struggles with locker-room squabbles, Thomas’ future chances looked quite a bit different.

No longer would he be entering the market as a league-leading scorer and daring playmaker. Instead, he’d go in as a short about-to-turn-30-year-old who gets exploited by every offense he faces and who maybe didn’t have the juice anymore to give as good as he gets. Not exactly the kind of player teams are going to line up to pay $30 million a year, especially in a financial environment in which so few teams will have meaningful money to spend in free agency.

In that sense, then, when Thomas came to L.A., he did have to prove, maybe to everybody, that he can actually get back to doing what he used to do. He’s not all the way there yet, certainly; we’re mere days removed from whatever the hell this was. But he’s already had nearly as many quality outings in a Lakers uniform as he did in wine and gold, and he’s generally looked smoother, more potent and better able to get in-rhythm than he did in Cleveland.

Small-sample caveats apply, but his shooting numbers are up across the board. He’s dishing assists more frequently despite commanding a smaller share of his team’s offensive possessions, though his turnover rate has risen (and, as SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield notes, some of the type of TOs Thomas is committing show that his level of explosiveness and control still aren’t quite where they need to be). And while his presence has still tended to crater the Laker D, L.A.’s at least getting an offensive boost in IT’s floor time, scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions in 165 minutes with him on the court since his arrival compared to 113.5-per-100 in 219 minutes with him off it.

On the whole, of course, that’s not great. Being a net-negative performer on a lottery team is still a far cry from where Thomas was this time last year, and where he hoped to be heading into what could be his last and best chance to truly strike it rich in the NBA. It’s better, though. It’s a start.

Whether or not Thomas can consistently produce at this level will determine just how much the NBA world buys into his future prospects, but with every bit he can continue to contribute to a Lakers team that’s quietly been one of the league’s best over the past two months, Thomas will remove a little bit more of the dirt on his reputation, and restore a little bit more of the respect to his name. Maybe that’s not enough to get him top dollar on the market. But it’d make the outlook a hell of a lot sunnier than it seemed a month ago.

“All you need is one team to love you,” Thomas said Thursday, according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. “It’s like the draft all over again. You just need one team.”

The more performances like Thursday’s that Thomas can turn in before the second week of April, the better his chances of finding what he needs.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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