Isaiah Thomas walked toward his locker before the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 127-110 on Tuesday, and before he could slip on his jersey ahead of his first game in more than seven months, his teammates caused a commotion to mark the moment.
"I feel like a damn rookie," Thomas muttered under his breath as he sat down in front of his wine and gold No. 3 uniform. He didn't play like a rookie, however, as he scored 17 points and played 19 minutes in his long-awaited Cleveland debut.
"It was a special night for me," Thomas said afterward. "I haven't played in seven months, so to be able to be out there and compete against another team was special. Obviously to get the win was even bigger but just to be able to compete and be out there in a game setting, it was a great feeling for myself."
Thomas checked in to a standing ovation with 4:33 left in the first quarter — his first official action since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals when he played for the Boston Celtics and faced the Cavs as an opponent on May 19 — and picked up an assist on his first trip down the floor, passing to his old Boston teammate, Jae Crowder.
"It was a special moment," Thomas said of the reception. "I haven't played in a game, and you would think I was here for a few years and playing and battling in Finals with this team, but it was special for my family to be here, my wife and kids to see that, that's genuine love right there and I appreciate them patiently waiting and giving me the love they did tonight."
Thomas took a spill on his second possession after crossing up Damian Lillard, but got back up with no damage other than a grimace on his face. He attempted his first shot the next time he touched the ball, rimming a 3-pointer in and out.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he was hoping Thomas would experience a hard fall like that.
"Once he hits the floor, gets banged and sees he has no damage or he's not hurting, I think that will help him get past the mental block of coming back, being out for seven months," Lue said before the game
Thomas missed his next shot, a corner 3, but got his third shot to go — a pull-up 14-foot jumper with 1:11 left in the first quarter.
He didn't stop there, scoring an and-1 layup on the next possession as he exploded past Portland guard Shabazz Napier. Thomas closed the first quarter by air-balling a 3; however, he made his first shot of the second quarter on a pull-up 3.
When Thomas checked back in later in the second quarter, he immediately found LeBron James, who was posting up, for a feed down low, resulting in a bucket and showing a glimpse of what James could accomplish working more off the ball because of Thomas.
James offered a glowing report about his new teammate.
"He's very good, very good," James said. "Very dynamic. Can shoot the pill. Can get in the lane. Can pass the ball. He's going to just create so much for our team."
James also credited Thomas' mentality.
"What I like most about him is he has a chip on his shoulder for life," he said. "That's just who he is. When a guy's got a chip on his shoulder for life, he ain't going to — he's never going to not work hard. Not going to never give it his all. Not going to never disappoint you. Now basketball, you miss shots and things of that nature, and we're not worried about that. You make turnovers, all of that, that's not what I'm saying, but a guy like that — he's going to always put in the work. And when you put in the work the game is going to always give back to you."
Making sure his night included a little of everything, Thomas was also whistled for a technical foul for arguing a non-call with a referee in the first half. It was actually his second technical foul of the season — he picked one up while wearing street clothes when the Cavs played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in November.
Thomas didn't check back in until late in the third quarter, and his first shot hit the underside of the rim. But on the next possession, he found himself open in the corner and hit a 3-pointer to extend the Cavs' streak of hitting 10 3s or more as a team to a franchise-record 26th straight game.
Lue said that when he devised a game plan to stop Thomas as an opponent, his top priority was keeping Thomas off the foul line. The Blazers fell victim to Thomas' foul-drawing ways, as he used a pump fake to get fouled on a 3-point attempt later in the third quarter and earned three freebies.
By the fourth quarter, Thomas seemed to find the rhythm that he claimed was eluding him in the three scrimmages he played in the weeks leading up to his debut. He hit a pull-up 3-point jumper in transition to push the Cavs' lead from six to nine at 100-91. Thomas checked out for good with 8:10 left in the fourth and the Cavs up 102-91. Lue dapped him up on the sideline before Thomas headed to his seat on the bench.
His 17 points came on 6-for-12 shooting (3-for-8 from 3), and he had three assists.
"I know it's going to take time at first and we got to go through the steps of going out there and playing in the game and figuring those things out, but once I get comfortable, then all the restrictions got to be off soon," Thomas said before Tuesday's game.
Thomas was asked pregame to compare how his body feels now compared to before he suffered his hip injury in March and aggravated it during the playoffs.
"I mean, my hip is better, but I have no rhythm," he said. "I have no feel for the game right now. I've been out for so long it feels like I lost my powers. So even when we're out there scrimmaging, I can move around and do what I want, but I just don't have my powers yet."
The prospect of playing against Kyrie Irving on the TD Garden parquet is something that gets Thomas' energy up; he couldn't help but break into a wide smile Friday when a reporter mentioned the upcoming Celtics game. However, he'll have to wait until the Cavs' game in Boston on Feb. 11.
"That minutes restriction don't make it hard at all," Thomas said when asked about sitting out Wednesday. "It would be hard to play in Boston with a minutes restriction. Whatever they say, I can't play in back-to-backs for however long. I've got to follow their rules and continue to get better each and every day."
Thomas claims he can play 40 minutes right now, despite the Cavs holding him to about half that total on Tuesday.
The Celtics will not honor Thomas with a video tribute during Wednesday's game, at Thomas' request. The team plans to keep any tribute for a future date when Thomas is playing, with the next opportunity being that Feb. 11 game, during which the Celtics plan to retire Paul Pierce's number.
"I know it will be all love," Thomas said. "I keep saying that I gave that city everything I had and they showed me genuine love back, and I think that love is going to last forever. So, there's no hard feelings. This ain't no revenge game. They know what they gave up. They knew what they got. It's all good. I'm focused on the Cleveland Cavaliers and trying to win a championship."
Thomas was knocked out of last season's Eastern Conference finals because of the injury, was shockingly traded in the offseason and has been steadily working his way back.
"I never took the game for granted," said Thomas, the former 60th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. "I was always one that just wanted to be the best I possibly could. Get everything out of this game I possibly could. But, I mean, for being 28 years old and this being the first time I've ever been really hurt and had to sit down, it made you appreciate it even more and I definitely don't take it for granted. This made me a better basketball player, a better person mentally and physically. So, it should be something special in 2018."