“It’s always good to be back,” said Thomas, who was healthy and available to play against the Celtics for the first time since being part of the Kyrie Irving trade in September 2018. “This feels like home, so it’s always good to be in the city of Boston and to be in TD Garden. And I’m just happy to be back and around familiar faces and to really get that genuine, real love.”
Thomas was still injured when the Cavaliers played the Celtics on Jan. 3 last season and by Feb. 11, when a tribute had tentatively been scheduled, he had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He signed with the Nuggets in the off-season.
There was no guarantee, however, that Thomas was going to play. Before Denver played the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 12, Nuggets coach Mike Malone had a meeting with Thomas and informed him that Denver would be shortening its rotation ahead of the playoffs.
And Thomas, who had struggled in the nine games he played after finally making his season debut last month, averaging 12 points but shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from 3-point range, wouldn’t be part of it.
“Very tough decision,” Malone said. “If you know the history between Isaiah and myself, I think that relationship had a lot to do with him choosing Denver, and coming to Denver to play. And, after nine games, to call him into a meeting and let him know I was going to shorten the rotation and he was going to be out of the rotation, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t something I enjoyed doing.”
Malone went on to say that he had been impressed by the way Thomas has handled the news, and supported his teammates. But when asked directly whether the veteran would get minutes in his return to the home of his greatest NBA successes, Malone did everything he could to avoid committing to it.
“We really haven’t spoken a whole lot about the situation since the initial conversation a few weeks ago,” Malone said. “I know this game is, I believe, the first game he’ll be back here with a chance to play since he left, and that’s not lost on me. We’ll see. You never know what can happen in a basketball game.
“I just know these fans are going to give him the reception he deserves and I’m excited to see that and I know it will be an emotional night for him.”
Thomas, who said he would “understand” if Malone chose not to play him against Boston, said this is the first time he doesn’t feel pain since the hip issues that caused his final season with the Celtics to end after Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. The same issues derailed him last season, as he initially tried to avoid having surgery but struggled mightily with the Cavaliers and was later traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played out the season and became a free agent.
Thomas insisted, however, that he can still get back to the level he was before the hip issues sent his star plummeting after earning a pair of All-Star selections and a All-NBA nod in his two full seasons with the Celtics.
“I just want a legit opportunity,” he said. “Whatever the role may be, it’s going to be. But I know I can play at a high level again. And if given the opportunity I can be an All-Star, I can be All-NBA, I can be all that, because I physically feel great.
“But it’s all about the opportunity. If I get an opportunity I’m going to be ready for it, I’m going to take full advantage of it. And when this summer comes I’m going to just figure out what’s the best opportunity, what’s the best situation for myself and my family, and then go from there.”
While it was unclear whether Thomas would play, he did say that he would be appreciative if the Celtics chose to honor him with a tribute video before or during Monday night’s game. He also said he’d like to end his career with the Celtics, if possible.
“I mean, these were the most fun times of my career. I turned into a superstar here. The world knew my name when I played for the Boston Celtics. [I’m] not saying they don’t now, but playing for the Celtics changed my whole career, on and off the floor.
“This city and this organization treated my family with 100 percent respect. Decisions happen. I never hold no grudges against anybody for that decision, but you never know what can happen. My options are always open no matter what it is, and I mean if I end up here at some point, that would make the story that much better.”