ORLANDO, Fla. — With Isaiah Thomas, there may be no such thing as a routine and-one.
When the 5-foot-9 point guard drives into the land of the giants, there always seems to be a little bit of a prayer involved as he heaves the ball toward the basket.
And that prayer is routinely answered.
That’s what happened Saturday night in the fourth quarter when he took on the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon, the most famous loser of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and who stands a foot taller than Thomas. Thomas hit the layup, Gordon fouled and Thomas missed the ensuing free throw, but Jeff Green was there to tip it in to give the Cavs a 14-point lead in a six-point victory.
“That was beautiful. It doesn’t matter how tall you are guarding him, he’s gonna find a way to go up,” LeBron James said.
“I’ve been on the other end of those, so we’re happy to have him here,” Kevin Love said of Thomas’ trademark shot.
Thomas, 28, made his first start as a Cavalier against the Magic after debuting at home Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite spending the last seven months rehabbing a torn labrum in his right hip, Thomas scored 19 points, giving him 36 in the two victories. And the Cavs offense has received the same jolt as Thomas’ play on Gordon provided.
The Cavs’ 131 points against the Magic was a season high. Their 127 points against the Blazers was their third most. They’ve topped 120 only seven times in 39 games this season and two of those are with two-time All-Star Thomas on the court.
The only game they’ve scored more without him was Nov. 3 at Washington, when they totaled 130 as James tied the franchise record with 57 points.
Going into Sunday’s action, the Cavs had moved into a tie with the Toronto Raptors for third in the league in offensive efficiency (110 points per 100 possessions), trailing only Golden State (113) and Houston (112.7).
And Thomas still hasn’t found his touch at the free throw line. Second in the league last season at 90.9 percent, Thomas is 5-for-9 in two games.
“I love free throws,” Thomas said. “The ones I’ve missed, they’ve been short. I know that when they’re short I have no feel. I’ll adjust and fix it.”
He also promised to cut down on his chatter as he drew his third technical foul this season while jawing with Elfrid Payton, who also received one. Thomas said he talked a lot last season, too, and admitted some of it can be attributed to the excitement over his return. But he knows he’s got to tone it down because his wife continues to text him over the accompanying fines.
On a larger scale, those in the organization who worried about a long acclimation period for Thomas and the Cavs may be relieved that the centerpiece of the Aug. 22 trade with the Celtics for Kyrie Irving has exceeded expectations. There may be bumps ahead as a five-city road trip continues with games tonight in Minnesota and Thursday in Toronto. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has said Thomas will likely site Friday at Indiana.
Thomas first hurt his hip March 15 against the Timberwolves in a collision with Karl-Anthony Towns, who may provide another mental and physical hurdle for Thomas.
But there’s no question what he’s done so far for the Cavs offense.
“I think by being out there it’s unlocking another level, for sure,” Thomas said Saturday. “I’m able to push the pace a little more, get the ball out of Bron’s hands and show the defense something different. With me being out there it definitely gives us another level that we can reach.
“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. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.”
Thomas plays at a different pace than Jose Calderon, 36, who handled the point in 23 starts. Thomas brings exactly what Lue loves.
“When we’ve had our talks when I was not playing, he’s like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until you get back playing. We’re playing too slow,’” Thomas said of Lue. “I’m like, ‘We’re definitely not going to have a problem with me pushing the pace. That’s just who I am and what I’ve always done.’ It definitely gives us another dimension because we’ve been a slower-paced team since all of our point guards have been out and Jose is playing.”
Also to be considered is what Thomas, who carries a 19.1 career average, does for spacing playing alongside James and Love.
“He just demands so much attention out there,” Love said. “All eyes are on him when he has the basketball — very, very tough to defend. He changes the pace on that end and we haven’t even seen what he’s capable of yet. He’s just coming back.”
Dwyane Wade also talked of the “totally different dimension” Thomas brings.
“He shoots, he scores. That’s Isaiah Thomas,” Wade said. “We’re trying as quick as possible to get him back into game shape, trying to get him used to so many reps. There’s going to be times where it looks amazing, there’s going to be times where you’re going to see some rust. But we’re trying to fast-track this thing for him. He’s a scorer, man.”
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