Three hours before a late-January game in Washington, Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics’ 5’9″ All-Star point guard, walks slowly through a Verizon Center tunnel, like a beleaguered civil servant going to work on a cold Tuesday morning, and onto the lacquered floor of the playing surface. The seats are empty, there is no music playing, and building personnel are bustling about. The hockey ice below the court keeps the air chilled. Thomas wears a green, long-sleeved shirt over practice shorts, three-quarter-length compression tights and low black Nikes with a green swoosh. No headband, not until the curtain goes up.
“That’s for fashion,” he says. (And also an homage to Jason Terry, the 18-year NBA veteran and friend from their shared Seattle-Tacoma home area; Terry’s headband is an homage to ’70s-vintage Seattle Supersonics guard Slick Watts.) Assistant coach Jerome Allen begins feeding Thomas passes, and Thomas begins shooting, as he does three hours before every game, because Terry told Thomas early in his career to find a routine and stick with it. This is part of Thomas’ routine.
Thomas shoots for 20 minutes, flicking soft, left-handed jumpers, first from 15 feet out. He shoots with his body angled at 45 degrees to the backboard, left foot forward, the ball held low in front of his forehead and then snapped at the rim. It is a sudden movement, distinctly different from, say, Klay Thompson’s silky motion. Thomas extends his arc until he is well past the top of the circle, receives a pass from Allen and then turns to find his vision suddenly blocked by a member of the Wizards’ dance team, which has quietly taken the floor for rehearsal. Thomas at first squares up and then pauses, stymied. It is an instructive moment: The dancer is taller than the second-leading scorer in the NBA.
Taller than a man who in late December scored 29 of his career-high 52 points in the fourth quarter of a win over the Heat (the second-highest-scoring fourth quarter in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 31 the night he finished with 100 in 1962). Taller than the catalyst of the Celtics’ rebirth, which at week’s end had taken them within 2 1⁄2 games of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. (To be fair, the dancer is wearing fancy white boots that might be giving her a lift. Still. …) After a moment’s awkwardness, she steps aside and Thomas drains a 25‑footer while laughing. Then the shooting continues.
Thomas always has been short. He was not one of those kids who matured young and became dominant in sports, only to stall out and watch other boys catch up and pass him. In the third-grade class picture from Naches Trail Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash., he is smack in the middle of the second row, wearing a billowing, yellow Lakers baseball jersey that falls nearly to the floor, flanked by two girls taller than he is. Thomas’ father is 5’6″. His grandfather was 5’6″. Upon reaching adolescence and still awaiting a growth spurt, Thomas tried to accelerate the process.
“In my basement, he had one machine that was supposed to stretch him out and another machine so he could hang upside down,” says Thomas’ mother, Tina Baldtrip (5’7″). Thomas would tell everyone that he was going to be 6 feet someday, but he is 27 years old and that day is not coming.
He has adapted just fine. In a year full of stunning individual performances, Thomas has made his case as the NBA’s most compelling player. Thomas, who is in his second full season with Boston, has raised his scoring average from 22.2 a year ago to 29.9 (second to Russell Westbrook’s 30.8), including a streak of 34 games scoring at least 20 points. His average of 10.7 points in the fourth quarter leads the league by a wide margin, the highest since the NBA began tracking the statistic in 1996 and the foundation of his growing legend. After hitting jumpers on three straight possessions to close out a Jan. 13 victory in Atlanta, Thomas pointed at his left wrist and shouted “My time! My time!” He scored 24 points in the fourth quarter (and 41 overall) in a 113–109 win over the Pistons in Boston on Jan. 30. After that game Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy said “When they hit the fourth quarter . . . he’s just a one-man team.” Thomas has scored 20 or more points in the fourth quarter four times this season; no other player has done it more than once.
“That’s just me,” Thomas says. “That’s me in those moments. Like I say, the fourth quarter isn’t for everybody.”
He has lifted the Celtics on his back. In the fourth season since Brad Stevens was hired away from Butler by general manager Danny Ainge to oversee the rebuilding of one of the league’s foundation franchises, Boston is 32-18, on pace to win more than 50 games for the first time since 2011, the penultimate season of the Big Three and Rondo. The C’s have been helped by the offseason acquisition of center Al Horford, the drafting of rookie swingman Jaylen Brown and the continued development of forward Jae Crowder and guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. But the team’s blood flows through Thomas’ veins. “He makes the decisions, when to attack, when to dish it,” Horford says. “And he brings it every night.”
Most remarkably, Thomas does these things while rising 69 inches from floor to headband. According to StatsPass, in the past 40 years there have been just 55 NBA players under 6 feet tall (and only 12 were 5’9″ or shorter). This list doesn’t include some of the best little men in history: Allen Iverson officially played at 6 feet; Nate Archibald was listed at 6’1″, ditto John Stockton. Thomas has his own personal list: “Nate Robinson, Tiny Archibald, Allen Iverson, Calvin Murphy, Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, Terrell Brandon,” he says, and then mentions another, 5’10” left-hander Damon Stoudamire, who played 13 years, including eight in Portland when Thomas was growing up in the Northwest. “He had a Mighty Mouse tattoo,” Thomas says. “So one of my first tattoos was Mighty Mouse.” It’s inked into Thomas’ right arm.
The highest single-season scoring average by a player under 6 feet is 5’10” Michael Adams’ 26.5 in 1990-91; Adams shot just 39.4% (and 29.6% from beyond the arc) for the freewheeling Nuggets, while Thomas is a 47.0% shooter. Murphy is the only other sub-6-footer to have averaged more than 25 points: 25.6 in 1977-78, without the three-point line. Thomas stands to obliterate those numbers.
Thomas succeeds while playing with an intense fury, much the same as he played with as a kid. “Exact same game,” Terry says. “Fearless, pit-bull competitor, not backing down from anybody.” He is an outstanding three-point shooter (a career-best 38.8% this year, rising to 42.5% in the fourth quarter), but his game grows from relentless attacks on the rim. “He gets low and he explodes,” says Jamal Crawford of the Clippers, a 15-year NBA veteran and, like Terry, a friend and mentor to Thomas from back home. “He’s like an NFL running back going through holes.” Thomas is built accordingly, a solid 180 pounds.
“It’s truly amazing what he’s able to accomplish in that regard, getting to the rim at his height,” Stevens says. “Here’s a guy that’s always had to figure out how to do it. And boy, has he figured it out. He’s got that ultimate chip on his shoulder where there is no success that can make him take his foot off the pedal and no slight that he misses.”
Now Thomas is sitting on a tall chair in a hallway near the visitors’ locker room in Washington. It has been a dizzying season so far, and four months lie ahead. In his sixth NBA season (with his third team), Thomas has both given his own jersey to Floyd Mayweather at courtside in Boston and worn a jersey from Tom Brady on the Patriots’ sideline in Foxborough. He both denies and embraces his size. “Honestly,” he says, “I don’t see height. I just, I figure out a way. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve been the smallest player on every court I’ve ever been on in my life. But I don’t feel small. I feel as big as everybody else.”