BOSTON -- So accustomed to being overlooked and underappreciated, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas found himself in unfamiliar territory on Thursday evening after learning he had been voted to the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
As a stream of well-wishers began bombarding him with congratulatory text messages, Thomas phoned head coach Brad Stevens, one of the people he often references when discussing the few who have always believed in him and encouraged Thomas to be himself. The genuine excitement that exuded from Thomas, the first All-Star of Stevens' three-year tenure, could be felt through the cellular network.
"It was fun to hear his enthusiasm, hear his excitement in that moment," Stevens said.
Stevens congratulated Thomas on the honor, reminded him how hard he worked to get to this point and, leaning on his familiar growth-mindset philosophy, encouraged Thomas to keep striving to take his game even further.
Basking in the afterglow of Thursday's All-Star honor, Thomas admitted his mind wandered briefly to the detractors that so often motivate him. And it only made him savor the recognition more.
"I asked myself [Thursday], ‘What can they say now?’ But they’ll find something," said Thomas. "I mean, If they talk bad about Kobe [Bryant] and those types of guys, I’m not close to as good as them, so they’ll find something. But it’s not about them right now. I’m just enjoying the moment and I’m excited about what happened [Thursday] night."
In his first game with the All-Star tag, Thomas put up 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting with eight assists and four turnovers over 27 minutes during Boston's 113-94 thumping of the visiting Orlando Magic on Friday night at TD Garden. It was one of Thomas' quieter games recently, but with Boston's second unit salting the game away, he got to rest the entire fourth quarter as Boston won its season-high fifth straight and eighth game in 10 tries while shuffling up the East standings.
Stevens is certain that a boulder-size chip remains on Thomas' 5-foot-9 shoulders.
"I don’t worry about that stuff too much with him, because I think the biggest thing is that this guy’s got to this point because he’s got a drive that very few people have," Stevens said. "And I don’t see him being satisfied by much."
Thomas echoed the sentiments
"[Stevens] said, ‘Now the good thing about this is something else needs to motivate you. You need to take your game to a higher level,’" he said. "That’s what I have planned anyway."
During the first timeout of Friday's game, the Celtics played a brief video in celebration of Thomas' All-Star nod. It opened with footage of Adam Silver announcing Thomas as the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft out of Washington. It followed with some of the knocks from Thomas' college scouting report, including how he "struggles versus size" and is "too small." Some highlights from Thomas' time in Boston -- including flashy ballhandling and strong finishes against bigger defenders -- followed before the segment ended on a still frame of an exulting Thomas with the note, "Congratulations, Isaiah Thomas," and the 2016 All-Star logo.
Fans roared as Thomas returned to the court after the timeout, and he acknowledged them by clapping his hands and raising his arms with index fingers pointed skyward.
One of those fans cheering was boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, one of Thomas' closest friends, who made the trek to Boston to celebrate the All-Star honor. Mayweather, who visited the Celtics' locker room after the game and posed for pictures with much of the team's support staff, is eager to mentor Thomas on the challenges of growing stardom.
"The bigger you get, the more you make, the harder you’ve got to continue to work," Mayweather said while departing TD Garden. "I think that athletes, as well as entertainers, once they reach a certain point, they’re content. With me, I always feel like I can get better. And I always wanted to grow and get better. And I wanted to continue to learn."
"[Thomas is] a force," Mayweather added. "Relentless. Very, very relentless."
Thomas owns the lowest draft position of any player to ever make an All-Star Game since the NBA went to two rounds in 1989. He is only the ninth player in league history under 6 feet in height to make the game and the second at 5-foot-9 or shorter -- the other was Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy).
Thomas had made an All-Star appearance a goal before the season and was particularly thankful to his Celtics teammates for helping him accomplish that feat, believing his individual honor reflects that of a team currently fighting for a top spot in the East. Asked what he plans to do at All-Star weekend, Thomas said he wants to support teammates Marcus Smart in the Rising Stars Challenge and Jordan Mickey in the D-League All-Star game.
The Feb. 14 main event in Toronto will give the league's smallest player a big stage to showcase his talents. But having secured that All-Star honor, Thomas sounds almost more excited about trying to build off Boston's team success in the aftermath of the midseason exhibition.
It was Thomas who helped Boston make an unexpected second-half surge to the seventh seed in the East last season, before the Celtics were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics, regardless of what happens before February's trade deadline, are eager to take another step forward this season. Finishing the 2015-16 regular season strong would put them in position to be more competitive in an opening-round series, and potentially beyond.
Thomas barely sat down in the fourth quarter of Friday's game against a struggling opponent. He was up cheering Boston's second unit as it fueled a big run to put the game away. Thomas was still shouting words of encouragement to players like rookie R.J. Hunter in the closing moments of the game, long after Gino had danced away on the JumboTron as another victory cigar.
Stevens pointed to Thomas' engagement in this sort of game.
"It's a testament to who he is," said Stevens. "He's enjoying being a part of this."
Reflecting on how the All-Star nod moves him into elite company among the little guys who have played the game, Thomas noted: "I guess I’m going in the right direction, but I’m not satisfied. I expect those types of things out of myself, and I think when you hold yourself to a higher standard, things that happen, you just go with the flow."
So he's not satisfied?
“Oh no, no," Thomas said. "We’re trying to get more. Never satisfied, but definitely trying to get more."