Isaiah Thomas is back and the Cavaliers will eventually need more than just his scoring
Isaiah Thomas is rusty, but the potential fit is already there for him and the Cavaliers
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Isaiah Thomas sprinted off the court Saturday after the Cavaliers held on for a close four-point win over the Magic in a game they at one point led by 20. Thomas, now 2-0 in games he plays in, scored 19 points in his first start of the season. As Thomas ran off into the locker room, he found team physician George Sibel and immediately demanded more minutes.
"I'm trying everything I can to get more minutes and tell them I feel good," An excited Thomas said after the game. "But we're on protocol right now. They're doing a hell of a job of not caring what I say and looking out for what's best for not just this season, but my career."
Thomas is playing his first real basketball in months after a hip injury sidelined him during the Eastern Conference finals and the entirety of this season up to this point. He's had his fair share of drama since that moment. A trade from the Celtics, where he had become a fan favorite in exchange for point guard Kyrie Irving. For some that would be discouraging. For Thomas, it's motivation and a chance to play with some of the NBA's best.
"Playing with a guy like LeBron, who's very unselfish, when I'm off the ball the ball still finds me," Thomas said. "Playing the pick-and-roll with him is like you got to pick your poison of who you're going to guard. And (Kevin Love), I played with him when we were younger so I know a little bit how Kevin plays. He's just another factor in helping the floor be spaced for me. They do a hell of a job in doing what they do and I try to piggyback on them with this minutes restriction."
All of this is new for Thomas. With the Celtics he was the de facto star of the team -- the face of a franchise that he helped bring back to relevance. Before Boston, he was seen as a serviceable role player off the bench. Now in Cleveland, he's a secondary star next to the best player in the world. That requires him to play a different style from what he's accustomed to playing in the past.
Thomas has always been a scoring guard but he can't dominate the ball on this team. Not on a squad with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the roster. Not when Kevin Love deserves touches. Except they need Thomas to be himself. Cleveland wants the player that averaged 28 points per game last season, but they need him to do it in a way that fits what they're doing and that's where the rust has shown so far.
It's only been two games, but the lack of time together with Thomas and the rest of the Cavaliers is clear. When Thomas runs the offense Cleveland is noticeably less effective than when James or Wade are running the show. It's not a knock on Thomas, because those early struggles are expected. It's just something the Cavs will need to work through over time.
"He's a scorer. He's totally different from what I was doing out there." Cavs point guard Jose Calderon told CBS Sports. "It will be a different look of a team and defenses will have to adjust more to him than they did me, so that's going to be nice. It will maybe take some time and we'll need some adjustment as well just to get used to playing (with each other) because we didn't have that time."
"We need him to be aggressive." James said. "We need him to push the tempo. He is going to facilitate a little bit but with myself and D-Wade, we do a great job of making sure guys get involved. But I.T.'s aggressiveness, his ability to shoot the ball, and what he opens up for Tristan too is huge because guards can't go under his screens and it allows Tristan to get a great screen and there are a lot of times bigs are contesting his shot and now it allows (Thompson) what he does best -- cleaning up glass."
One aspect that Thomas hasn't slowed down with his new team is his scoring. From his 17-point Cleveland debut against Portland to his 19-point performance as a starter for the first time in Orlando, Thomas has shown no issues putting the ball in the basket.
"I'm a scorer." Thomas said. "That's what I do, so the ball is going to find me and I've been a guy that's always been able to not just have the ball, but be off the ball. As really good basketball players we figure out who has the hot hand, who can make the right plays, and you feed off each other."
"He had 19 tonight in 21 minutes". James said. "He hasn't played a basketball game in seven months, besides the other day back at home against Portland. For him to have 17 in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2 after being out seven months, that is classified as being a professional scorer."
The scoring ability of Thomas will allow him to slot into Cleveland's offense with no major issues while he learns how to play with his new teammates. Players that get buckets are never a liability. Especially on a team that has a creator like LeBron on it. All Thomas has to do is make the defense worry about him. The rest will come later.
"With me I'm able to push the pace a little more, get the ball out of LeBron's hands, and show the defense something different that they haven't seen all season," Thomas said. "With me being out there, it definitely gives us another level we can reach. I know I'm on a minutes restriction now, but the whole time I'm out there, especially when I have the ball, my job is to put as much pressure on the defense as possible and I feel I've done a pretty good job of that."
"We haven't even seen what he is capable of, and we are excited for that," Love said. "It is just the beginning. We are still figuring it out. There is a little bit of rust as you can see, but he is still being himself looking for shots, making the right play each time down. Naturally, having a guy that has been able to do what he has been able to do in this league and coming back very hungry, it is very exciting to see what the prospects are heading forward with him."
Eventually, Thomas will understand his teammates on the floor without even thinking about it. Those kick-out passes will become second nature and he'll know where teammates are standing without even looking for them. He'll be in the perfect position to catch a LeBron pass or find a cutting Dwyane Wade. Until that time comes, the Cavs will settle for the points.
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