As he entered a game for the first time as a member of the Cavaliers, Isaiah Thomas was greeted with a standing ovation by the sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Tuesday night.
Thomas, the All-Star guard who was acquired in a trade with the Boston Celtics this off-season, showed flashes of his former, brilliant self in his return from a hip injury. He threw crisp passes, fought his way to the basket, drew a technical foul for arguing and threw up five shots in his first five minutes on the court. His return helped put an end to Cleveland’s three-game losing streak as the Cavaliers beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 127-110.
Ending the losing streak was a nice bonus, but the return of Thomas, who averaged a career-best 28.9 points for Boston last season, was a moment the Cleveland fan base had been waiting for all season. Thomas, who checked in 4 minutes and 33 seconds into the game, was limited to 19 minutes but performed well in that short amount of time, with 17 points on 6 of 12 shooting, along with three assists.
He looked a bit uncomfortable, missing his first two shots, and he seemed perhaps a step slower than normal, but the Cavaliers outscored the Trail Blazers by 17 points with him on the court.
“It was great see him get his first basket and go from there,” LeBron James, who had 24 points, six rebounds and eight assists, told reporters. “He is a spark and the jump we needed on our team right now.”
With 8:10 remaining in the game and the Cavaliers ahead by 11, Thomas exited to another round of applause, letting James and the rest of the Cavaliers sew up the victory.
Coach Tyronn Lue told reporters before the game that the most important hurdle for Thomas to clear would be testing the durability of his hip in the game.
“Once he hits the floor, gets banged and sees he has no damage or he’s not hurting,” Lue said, “I think that will help him get past the mental block of coming back, being out for seven months.
Thomas took care of that quickly, colliding in traffic with Damian Lillard on one play and later forcing his way past Shabazz Napier to throw up a floater in the lane that connected as he hit the ground. Thomas hopped up quickly, brushed himself off, and hit a free-throw for a 3-point play.
The pressure on Thomas to return has been intense. He missed the first 36 games of the season following a shocking trade in which he, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a first-round draft pick were sent to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving. Thomas’ hip injury nearly killed the trade, and Boston eventually threw in a second-round pick as well, but the Celtics came out as the early winners in the deal with Irving helping lead them to an Eastern Conference-best record of 30-10 so far.