BOSTON — The improbable quest by the Boston Celtics to make the Eastern Conference playoffs was poised to get a major boost Wednesday night against the Miami Heat. Point guard Isaiah Thomas was given the green light by team trainers to return to the lineup after missing eight games due to a bruised back.
The stars appeared to further align in Boston’s favor when Dwyane Wade (knee) and Hassan Whiteside (hand) were announced as scratches shortly before the opening tip.
With Thomas back in the fold and Miami shorthanded, the stage was set for the hosts to hop into a tie with the Heat for the seventh seed in the East, if they could muster a win. Instead of rising to the challenge, the Celtics suffered one of their biggest letdowns of the season, stumbling through the first three quarters en route to a 93-86 setback against the Heat.
The loss in itself wasn’t Boston’s biggest issue of the night. The Celtics remain tied with the Indiana Pacers for the eighth seed in the East with 11 games remaining in the regular season. The team still controls its own destiny when it comes to a postseason spot.
However, that road to the postseason became more dubious after Thomas failed to show any signs that he’s back to being the explosive guard who averaged 21.7 points per game in his first 10 contests as a Celtic.
Rust was certainly expected from the 5'8" guard after sitting out two-plus weeks of game action, but Thomas was showing the lingering effects of his injury for much of the night. In just 19 minutes of action, Thomas posted a mere four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He missed all three of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line. He also failed to record a rebound, assist or steal in his stint.
Most notably, Thomas lacked the speed and mobility that made him such a weapon during his first few weeks as a Celtic. He was tentative driving into the paint, cautious with his dribble (three turnovers) and proved to be a defensive liability. He finished with a team-worst minus-18 rating as well.
The ineffective performance kept Thomas on the sidelines as a fourth-quarter comeback by the team’s second unit fell short. The 26-year-old called the effort “probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played.”
"First time I ever missed three free throws in a row. First time for a lot of things today,” Thomas continued. “I air-balled one three-pointer. My legs just wasn't there. That's the thing I can say the most: My legs wasn't there, I haven't played in a while. But like I keep saying, there's no excuses. I've just got to come back and play better. Offensively and defensively."
After the game, Brad Stevens was focused more on Thomas’ health, rather than his subpar performance, though.
“My bigger concern is, how’s he doing, because he was a little bit out of rhythm tonight,” Stevens said. “Hopefully that was just a rhythm thing and not how he’s feeling. That’s what I want to know and we’ll talk about that more. Guys aren’t going to be that honest during the game because they want to play, at least the really competitive ones are that way, and he’s a really competitive one.”
Thomas admitted he’s still not near where he wants to be physically.
"[The back] has improved a lot from that day when it happened and the day after. It's still going to be a process, and if I was trying to be 100 percent, I probably wouldn't play the rest of the year," Thomas said.
The challenge now for Stevens is to figure out how to manage Thomas as he struggles to regain his form on the floor. Boston is clearly at its best with Thomas on the court, but with a mere three weeks remaining in the regular season, the head coach does not have the luxury of waiting patiently for Thomas to return to form.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that Thomas is still learning the ins and outs of Boston’s schemes, and his lengthy absence has set him back on that front.
“[It’s] a little bit [of a challenge to get acclimated]. It feels like all over again, like when I first [was acquired by Boston]. These guys have made it comfortable for me and they did tonight. I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have the energy and a lot of stuff. Hopefully the next few days I’ll be better.”
Boston fans can only hope Thomas is right, since the team’s chances of making the postseason likely depend on it.