BOSTON -- Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas showed up for his postgame chat with reporters in Philadelphia on Sunday evening sporting an acid-washed snapback hat inscribed with "Celtics 1986 NBA Champions." The cap, which he picked up at a Philadelphia clothing store during the road trip, was a hit with Celtics fans, who loved both the throwback look and what the cap represented for the storied franchise.
On Monday night, Thomas saved all his swag for the court. Playing with even more flair than usual, he produced a series of slick ballhandling moves, connected on some crazy arcing shots and, for the second night in a row, delivered a between-the-legs bounce pass in transition.
"I had a little pep in my step today, I guess," said Thomas, who finished with a game-high 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting to go along with seven assists, five rebounds and a steal over 34 minutes in a 107-96 triumph over the visiting Orlando Magic at TD Garden.
The win, coupled with the Atlanta Hawks' loss to the Washington Wizards, left Boston in a virtual three-way tie with the Hawks and Miami Heat for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. A four-game losing streak last week saw Boston slide all the way to No. 6 in the East, but consecutive wins have helped the Celtics dust themselves off in a four-team race (with the surging Charlotte Hornets joining in, as well) for the No. 3 spot over the final 11 games.
In a season in which he has elevated to All-Star status, Thomas seems to keep getting better. He's averaging 26.5 points on 47.8 percent shooting (nearly 5 percent above his season mark) during the Celtics' 10 games in March. Thomas is playing with an obvious confidence on the offensive end. That includes a certain fearlessness going at the basket, leading to an average of 7.9 free throw attempts per game.
On Monday night, he attempted 12 of Boston's 24 freebies and brought pizzazz in getting to the line. Early in the first quarter while racing in the transition, Thomas somehow slowed himself up, put a hesitation move on Victor Oladipo and then leaned in for a layup and a three-point play.
The Celtics put an emphasis on getting Thomas the ball on the move to limit Orlando's ability to load up on him. He spent the night racing off handoffs, putting a move on defenders and finishing tough shots, most of them near the rim.
Midway through the first quarter, Thomas shook Brandon Jennings with a crossover near the free throw line and stepped back for an arcing rainbow. Then there was a scooping finger roll in transition over Oladipo. During one third-quarter sequence, Thomas turned the corner after a handoff and seemingly elected to finish with his right hand just because he could.
A short time after that, Thomas came racing off an Amir Johnson screen on the right elbow and caught the ball with momentum while entering the paint. All five bodies on the floor for the Magic collapsed on him, but Thomas still splashed a banner-scraping floater.
Thomas was a team-best plus-24 in plus/minus on Monday night. Boston's offensive rating with him on the floor was a ridiculous 121.2 (or 15.8 points better than the team's offensive rating for the game). Thomas coupled that with a 91.5 defensive rating, which left him a net rating of plus-29.7 for the night.
Thomas turned the ball over four times, but he was otherwise in complete control of the game.
Kelly Olynyk provided a much-needed bench spark -- 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting -- but Thomas and the starters were the difference in the game.
Maybe the most notable play of the night for Thomas came early in the second half when, pushing the ball in transition, he delivered a between-the-legs bounce pass to Evan Turner for a layup. It was the second such assist in as many nights, and it once again left Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman asking, "What was that!?" to which color man Tommy Heinsohn bellowed, "Between the legs again!" before Gorman added, "That was nifty, whatever [it was]."
Asked if he had a little extra swag to his game on Monday, Thomas said, "I’m just taking what the defense gives me." When a follow-up touched on whether the defense gave him between-the-leg passes, Thomas downplayed it, while noting, "I’m just glad [Turner] finished it; he made me look good."
Thomas is making his teammates look pretty good too. He has now scored 20-plus points in each of his past 10 games, which the NBA noted is the longest streak by a Celtics player since Paul Pierce did it in 2006. Thomas' impact on the Celtics' offense is undeniable. Boston owns an offensive rating of 106.4 when Thomas is on the court. It plummets to 98.7 when he's off it.
"It's unbelievable," Johnson said of Thomas' play lately. "All-Star. His game play just speaks for itself. He’s one of our leaders on the team, and what he does on the court definitely surprises us all. But we know what he can do."
Thomas smiled when asked about that 1986 championship cap. He's under no delusion that, on the 30th anniversary of that team, that these Celtics might produce an updated version. But Thomas' play is a big reason why most Celtics fans think that this team might eventually get back to contending for a title.
"I’m a Celtic right now. I’m all for [the tradition]," Thomas said of the 1986 championship hat. "It was a nice-looking hat too. I like the hat. They say that was one of the best teams ever."