Isaiah Thomas is trying to look on the bright side of things during his groin injury. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
Most of the time, professional athletes block out the noise and nonsense.
But ever so occasionally, sometimes the noise bleeds through.
So when there was the theory put out early in Wednesday’s game against Orlando that the Celtics are somehow a better passing team without Isaiah Thomas in the lineup, the injured point guard fired back. And he drew on the advice he got once from Kobe Bryant.
“They gotta write something,” Thomas said of the Twitterverse. “They say the stupidest things so they get the headlines and everybody can talk about it,” Thomas said Friday night before the Celtics hosted the Toronto Raptors. “I can’t control that. At this point, I laugh about it now. Because it’s like, if you really think that, OK, that’s fine. I know what I mean to my teammates, I know what I mean to this organization and to Brad Stevens.”
The Celtics started out with 11 assists on 13 baskets. They finished the game, a 30-point blowout win, with 29 assists on 43 baskets in Boston’s first game without Thomas.
“The ball moved a little better without me. I guess so,” Thomas said before Friday’s game with an appropriate amount of cynicism. “‘They’re a better team without me. The ball moves better without me.’ I see it all.”
After getting his points across with a due amount of sarcasm, Thomas began to speak more from the heart.
“That’s not true. So the chip on my shoulder that is what it is, I’m always going to have that and use that for motivation,” Thomas said. “But the numbers don’t lie. It is what it is. But people that say that they don’t even believe it. They go home at night, they’re not believing that. They’re just saying it to get a reaction. I’m trying my best not to react.”
Thomas is not only averaging 26 points, he handing out a team-leading 6.1 assists per game.
“If it was anybody else we wouldn’t be talking about that,” Thomas continued. “I’m 5-9, that’s the only reason why they say that. I’m fine with that. I know what I bring to the table. My teammates know what I bring. As long as they are happy. I’m fine. I’m not going to react. I try not to. I try to think of what Kobe said: Be a lion. Just lock in and don’t worry about what others say.”
Sully’s return: Jared Sullinger is still waiting to make his return to the NBA after back surgery last spring. The Raptors signed him to a one-year, $5.6 million deal at the start of free agency in July. Sullinger was made available when the Celtics decided not to tender him in restricted free agency. But because of his offseason surgery, he hasn’t been able to get on the floor. But his coach has high hopes for him once he starts playing.
“He gives us the same thing Al Horford gives the Celtics – a guy who can space the floor, a post-up threat, a passer, a player with a lot of intellect to play that position, experience,” Dwane Casey said. “He started 79 games for them last year, so he gives us that experience.”
When exactly that return happens is still up in the air.
“Not sure. There’s no definite timetable on it yet,” Casey said. “Someone said four to five weeks, and I don’t want to put a hard deadline on that. But it’s going to be up to him, his pain threshold, he’s been working his ass off, he’s been in the pool, he can barely put weight on it, but he’s trying to get back. He’s doing an excellent job with his conditioning, his weight is down. We’re not concerned as all.”
Sullinger has been traveling with the Raptors, including Friday night in Boston, where he got a chance to catch up with some former teammates. Was he disappointed not to play Friday night against the Celtics?
“Not really. I kind of disengage myself from the game of basketball just so I don’t rush back,” Sullinger said. “Just understanding health is most important right now. Going through the season I’m just glad it happened early instead of late. Right now I’m just removing myself, just so I don’t rush back and do something I’m not supposed to or make a step I’m not supposed to make. I’m just trying to stay away from it.”
Sullinger says the back injury happened on April 1, when he went up to block Ian Clark’s shot in Oakland against the Warriors.
“As funny as it sounds, when I went up to block Ian Clark’s shot, it just felt funny and the rest of the game it felt funny,” Sullinger recalled Friday. “The next day I woke up and it was sore. We went over and over and where I had the crack in the bone, my pain wasn’t lined up with it. I had more pain in my ankle than the actual foot part. So we just let it rest and it wasn’t getting better. I got an MRI and realized it was time to have surgery.
“You don’t want to mess this up, because once you mess it up, you’re out another three months, and then you mess it up again and you’re out another three months and you don’t want that to happen. So I’m just taking it slow.”
Sullinger says his first trip back to Boston was a bit odd.
“It was just weird, not being able to go to my house and staying in a hotel,” Sullinger said. “That was the weirdest part. There were emotions, of course. This place had some of the best four years of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But at this point it’s all about getting a win for Toronto.”
Sullinger admitted that he felt a sense of pride in being part of the turnaround from the start of the Brad Stevens era, when the Celtics won 25 games in 2013-14 to now.
“I just thought, for what I came in to do as a rookie to when I left, it was gratifying to see the program changed, and I was a part of that,” Sullinger said.
“Right when I heard the news I texted him to make sure his spirits were high and he was all right,” Isaiah Thomas said. “And I just saw him a little bit ago. He seems like he’s in the right state of mind and he’s just trying to get back to getting healthy, and get out there and playing.
“He got me open so it was lovely playing with Jared. He’s a great teammate, he’s a hell of a basketball player, and like I said when I was open it was because of him. So he set great screens for me, and I miss him. I miss him out there.”
Then there was the reaction of coach Brad Stevens.
“I texted him right after the surgery maybe but no I haven’t talked to him in the last couple of weeks,” Stevens said before Friday’s game. “Obviously, everybody here wishes him a speedy recovery and hopefully he gets back out on the court soon. I like Jared a lot. He’s a heck of a player, a really smart guy. I have a lot of respect for him. It stinks that he has to go through that, but he’ll come back strong I’m sure.”
The reason Sullinger didn’t come back?
“[Al] Horford. That was the decision driver,” Stevens said.
Backcourt basics: While they may not have the popularity or fame of the Splash Brothers in Golden State or the name recognition of Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul, the Raptors possess one of the truly superior backcourts in basketball.
And the combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan showed their brilliance in one exceptional game-changing quarter of basketball Friday night in the Raptors’ come-from-behind win. Lowry scored 14 of his game-high 34 points in the period while DeRozan added 10 in the quarter. The two were a combined plus-31 and shot 7-of-16 from the field. They simply took over the game. Lowry and DeRozan combined for 58 points in the 101-94 Raptors’ win.
“It’s a big-time backcourt,” Brad Stevens said before the contest. “Two Olympians. Guys that are playing at a high level. Guys that are in the prime of their career. They’ve been a bear for everybody. They’ve had an outstanding year thus far. They’re a really hot team, and, tough matchups.”
DeRozan is averaging 28 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists while Lowry, in his 11th year out of Villanova, is averaging 20.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists.
“I don’t know why he’d be overlooked,” Stevens said. “Not overlooked by me or our staff. I think he’s one of the best point guards in basketball, and he can shoot the ball at a high, high level. He’s a hard guy to stop in pick-and-roll going downhill. He can play with the ball or off the ball, and then defensively he’s a pest. He breaks things up. He’s physical so he can guard bigger. He’s good.”
Silver linings backcourt: With Isaiah Thomas out with a groin injury, Brad Stevens has now lost three of his five projected starters at some point this season due to injury. Al Horford and Jae Crowder came back and helped the Celtics win 5-of-7 in their return. Now, the Celtics are 1-1 without Thomas, beating Orlando by 30 on Wednesday but losing to Toronto Friday night at TD Garden. Marcus Smart stepped into the starting role for Thomas while Terry Rozier is seeing much more playing time off the bench.
“It’s always tough because you’re kind of always managing a curveball here or there,” Stevens said. “But I look at it as a good thing in the long run with regard to more people are getting opportunities. And maybe this expedites Jaylen Brown’s learning curve, expedites Terry Rozier’s learning curve.
“They’re getting to see things and go through things and do things that maybe they don’t get as much when we’re fully healthy. It is what it is. You prepare with who you have available and you move forward. Our system really doesn’t change a ton. It may change the read you make off of the action but hopefully we have enough in that can take advantage of playing through the strengths of multiple people on each action.”
A true hero: The Celtics sensational community program “Heroes Among Us” honored 25-year-old Seth Rotberg from Natick, Mass during Friday’s game against Toronto. After his mother died from Huntington’s disease, he was tested for the disease. He tested positive. His response was to raise $80,000 for nonprofits supporting research and care. Last year, he received the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s Youth of the Year Award for his efforts.
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