By Joshua Howe
With 4:33 left in the first quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland PA announcer Sean Peebles’ voice boomed throughout Quicken Loans Arena: “Checking in for your Cavaliers—welcome to The Land!—number three, ISAIAAAAH THOMAS!”
What followed was pandemonium.
The crowd erupted, 20,000 voices strong, cheers and applause shattering the recommended decibel level for human ears as each and every person sprung from their seat in recognition of the gravity of the moment—this was Isaiah Thomas, after injuring his hip against these very Cleveland Cavaliers last May, returning to the hardwood, having fought an immense amount of pain (both physical and mental) over the past eight months that would be enough to send many people to the brink of despair.
But not Isaiah Thomas.
Instead, IT was now checking into the game, a determined and stoic look grafted upon his face from the months and months of waiting for this moment, training for this moment, rehabilitating for this moment. And he did not disappoint.
On his first possession of the game, he slipped around a screen set by longtime teammate Jae Crowder, drew the attention of both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis, kicked the ball back to Crowder, and watched as Davis attempted to wheel back and close out on a potential shot, only to feel wind as Crowder blew by him to score at the tin.
This is the sort of thing Thomas provides the Cavaliers with: The ability to space and create, both for himself and others. No longer is LeBron James sitting at the controls alone—now, he has a 5’9” copilot.
Thomas has always been aggressive at getting his shot, and from his first two games, it’s already evident how he changes the look of the Cavs—averaging 18 points and 3.5 assets in 20 minutes per game. He picks up the pace, making his way quickly down the floor, and if there’s an opening or his teammates are slow on the uptick, he’ll opt to drive himself, ricocheting around in the paint until he scores, gets fouled, or can make a worthwhile pass.
LeBron is not unaccustomed to my-turn-your-turn basketball, as he used to play that isolation style with Kyrie Irving all the time, and it’s fair to wonder whether or not a similar situation will evolve with Thomas, who spent the majority of his time in Boston with the ball in his hands and a system built around his scoring ability. But Thomas has already shown willingness to move around off-ball when LeBron has the rock, curling off of screens and looking to shoot while attention is locked on James. On one particular play, he proved why his ability to self-create is so crucial to the team—catching a tough pass from James, IT’s man caught up to him after a Tristan Thompson screen, but instead of passing the ball off, Thomas dribbled expertly around a second Thompson screen and buried a deep midrange jumper.
While having Thomas on the floor provides extra spacing for his teammates, this is also the first time he’s had such a luxurious amount of space to work with himself. In one lineup, which featured the likes of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Dwyane Wade, and Thompson, IT found himself on an island with Al-Farouq Aminu, immediately taking him off the dribble and bursting to the hoop for an and-one. The lane was left wide open, with multiple Blazers afraid to leave their man for fear of an open three-pointer or cut to the rim. And as we’ve seen with Thomas previously in Boston, giving him even an inch of space to work with is at your peril.
Speaking of cutters, the Cavs have some good ones, including one of the all-time best in Wade. Thomas is not an unwilling passer, and if he sees someone headed to the rim, he’s great at finding them, especially after penetrating the defense himself. Having Thomas develop chemistry with a guy like Wade, who will cut as often as you let him, will be important for the Cavs when LeBron rests. Anytime a unit can run up the score on an opponent while James takes a breather, it’s more than Ty Lue could hope to ask for.
In effect, opposing big men being forced to react to Wade (or whomever) cutting to the basket also allows for someone like Thompson, whose greatest skill is offensive rebounding, to secure inside position more easily and therefore keep more possessions alive. Plus, Thompson and Wade have already developed a nice chemistry themselves—the Wade-to-Thompson alley-oop is swiftly becoming a second unit staple—and so if Wade suddenly finds his open lane snuffed out, he can look for his bouncy big man to finish the play. The Thomas-Wade-Thompson trio, then, may prove to be the Cavs’ best threesome outside of any group containing LeBron.
It cannot be reiterated enough that perhaps the most salient basketball thing about Thomas’ return is that James no longer has to play quite as many minutes. And for a franchise with title aspirations, that’s everything. In the game against the Blazers, the Cavs outscored their opponent 31–13 in the nine minutes that saw Thomas on the floor and James off of it, per ESPN.
As for Thomas himself, well, he dropped 17 points and three assists on 50 per cent shooting, and was a +17 for the game. It’s been several months now since Cleveland fans have seen an All-Star point guard on their court, and while they’re surely hoping he can replicate what Irving did for the team, there are going to be differences, some good, some not as good.
Simply put, Isaiah Thomas is Isaiah Thomas, no one else.
And it’s great to have him back.