WASHINGTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas is getting some praise, assistance and even a new nickname from some of basketball’s biggest stars.
The Boston Celtics guard said he’s been talking and texting with Kobe Bryant to get tips about his game. Thomas has gotten text messages from Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and boxer Floyd Mayweather, but Bryant has been instrumental in helping the 5-foot-9 All-Star in recent weeks.
After the Celtics were down 2-0 in the first round to Chicago, Thomas said he emailed video to Bryant and the five-time NBA champion broke it down with him for 30 minutes over the phone.
“Mentally, he’s just on a different level than anybody I’ve ever met,” Thomas said Wednesday, less than 24 hours after scoring 53 points in Game 2 against the Washington Wizards. “He watched every second, telling me what times to go to look at and certain plays and things I didn’t look at when I watched film. Mentally, you can tell he’s one of the greatest ever.”
Bryant first reached out after Thomas’ sister died in a car accident on the eve of the playoffs and stayed in touch, texting him before and after each game to help with basketball. Brushing off the fact that a Los Angeles Lakers great was helping a Celtics player, Thomas called the assist the craziest thing to happen to him and welcomed Bryant’s “Mighty IT” nickname for him.
“I was at home in Washington, I was on the phone and my mom kept saying, ‘Who are you talking to?'” Thomas said. “I had to put it on mute and tell her it was Kobe.”
As Bryant offers help, the rest of the basketball world is in awe of Thomas, who is averaging 28 points through eight playoff games and came up one shy of John Havlicek’s franchise postseason record of 54 on Tuesday night.
Four-time MVP LeBron James called Thomas a “special guy, special talent,” especially given what he’s going through off the court after the death of his sister, Chyna.
“I just think she was just looking down on him and just giving him any extra motivation, any little touch, any little spring,” James said. “When you’re on the court that’s your sanctuary and that’s where you can kind of block everything out no matter what you’re going through in your individual life, block everything out because that’s your happy place and it definitely showed for him in his individual performance.”
Garnett recently said he’d expect Thomas to continue to play inspired basketball in his sister’s memory.
“It’s going to be in every shot, it’s going to be in everything that he does,” Garnett said. “I think we’re going to see a special playoffs from Isaiah Thomas.”
With four 30-plus-point performances already, he’s well on his way.
Boston coach Brad Stevens isn’t surprised at how Thomas is dealing with the physical strain of traveling home for his sister’s funeral and playing at this high of a level. But he called Thomas’ ability to handle the emotions “unbelievable,” and that admiration extends to the opposition.
“He has the heart of a champion,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “What he has gone through and what he’s able to do, you really can’t explain. I wouldn’t do it any justice to put it into words. But what you’re seeing is pretty incredible.”
Stevens said the most impressive thing about Thomas’ rise has been his ability to ignore the adulation and continue working. That’s a challenge that’s more difficult every day as Thomas puts up points and garners more respect and attention.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Thomas said. “When I get done with games and I see text messages from Kobe, Tom Brady and Floyd, all those types of guys that I’m trying to follow in their footsteps, it says a lot. I’m just trying to continue to keep going as a basketball player and as a person.”
AP Basketball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis and AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.