John Tomase

Making the (sentimental) case for Isaiah Thomas on Celtics' roster

If the NBA gods reward karma, nothing would please them more than I.T.'s return.

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Two years and change. That's all Isaiah Thomas spent in Boston. It's hard to believe, because "The Little Guy!" as the late, great Tommy Heinsohn called him, made a massive impact on the franchise.

Thomas served as the essential bridge between the New Big Three and the arrival of the Jays. Through sheer force of will, he kept the Celtics relevant when they should've been mired in a rebuild, and his exploits helped the Celtics land the best free agent they've ever signed in Al Horford.

Thomas made the Celtics such a destination in 2017 that superstar Kyrie Irving agreed to the trade that unfortunately came at the cost of Thomas himself. It's entirely possible that no deal, in any sport, has ever involved two players further apart on the likability spectrum. The moody Kyrie was electric, the effervescent Thomas was broken, and if they could, most Celtics fans would reverse that swap on principle.

Maybe now is their chance.

This is certainly the emotional heart talking instead of the rational brain, and there are a million reasons it won't happen, but I can't be alone in wishing for it – with an open spot at the end of the roster and diminishing options for filling it, why not give Thomas the Boston sendoff he deserves?

The Celtics finished their road trip in Utah with another win on Tuesday, and the visit allowed head coach Joe Mazzulla and a couple of assistants to catch Thomas' latest comeback attempt, at age 35, with the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

Former Celtics boss Danny Ainge, now in charge of the Jazz, did Thomas the favor as a thank you for his role in Boston's rebuild. Thomas, after all, helped transform the Celtics from one of the NBA's worst teams to the No. 1 seed in the East just three years later, delivering indelible memories as the irrepressible King in the Fourth.

The smallest player on the court continually found ways to exert his towering will, and we'll never forget the postseason charge he led in 2017 after the tragic death of his sister. Despite gutting through a hip injury that would ultimately derail his career, as well as emergency dental surgery, Thomas exploded for 53 points vs. the Wizards in what remains one of the most breathtaking playoff performances in Celtics history. He went off for 29 and 12 in the Game 7 clincher, and then didn't even finish Game 2 of the conference finals vs. the Cavs before shutting it down.

The Brinks truck he had expected to dump a max contract on his doorstep never arrived, his hip too ravaged. He has since undergone multiple procedures, including a resurfacing, and he told reporters in Utah there's some metal in there now, too.

He declared himself 100 percent healthy, but he has said that before. At age 35, nearly two years removed from his last stint in the league, it's hard to imagine he has much to offer on the court. To which I say: So what?

If the NBA gods reward karma, then nothing would please them more than I.T.'s return. He might even serve a purpose. On a Celtics team that has struggled to execute late in close games, Thomas could offer some guidance, because big shots were his specialty, from a game-winner against the Hawks, to the bomb vs. the Heat that gave him 50 points and sent Tommy into hysterics, to the fallaway and-one that sealed his 53-point playoff outburst vs. Washington. He may no longer be in a position to take those shots, but he knows what it's like to make them. Perhaps he has some words of wisdom for Jayson Tatum, or his former teammate, Jaylen Brown.

A look back at Isaiah Thomas hitting a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks in 2017 as a member of the Boston Celtics

If Udonis Haslem could spend nearly a decade at the end of Miami's bench offering nothing more than leadership, institutional memory, and a desire to fight Kevin Garnett in the dairy aisle, why can't Thomas serve a similar role in Boston? Jrue Holiday wears No. 4 now, so in a double nod to the past, give Thomas Danny's (and Scal's) No. 44 and let him lead the cheers in one of his trademark headbands. No 12th man would be happier to be here.

His connection to Boston remains visceral.

"It's real love," he told reporters, including Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe. "As you know, Boston love is real. Don't matter what happened in the past. All those guys communicate with me still. I'm always locked in on Celtics games.

"That was a big part of my life. That was an important time in my life as well, so it's always going to be love for everybody who's in that organization that was a helping hand to me and my family. I appreciate the support. That [expletive] goes a long way."

If the Celtics deliver on their promise and win a ring this year, it will be the culmination of an effort stretching back a decade with multiple triumphs and heartbreaks along the way. Thomas offered some of each himself, so let's not forget the role he played in the franchise's rebirth.

Better yet, let's reward it.

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