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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Breakdown: Isaiah Thomas’ Cleveland Cavaliers debut

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Isaiah Thomas finally made his debut for the Cleveland Cavaliers after a seven-month hiatus from the hardwood. The Cavaliers acquired Thomas via a trade this offseason, swapping a disgruntled Kyrie Irving for the fun-sized, dynamic scorer. Thomas was sidelined until Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trailblazers due to a hip injury that dated back to last season. 

Last night, he showed off the explosiveness we’re used to seeing out of him. In just 18 minutes, Thomas scored 17 points and tacked on three assists en route to a 127-110 win for the Cavaliers.
Here’s a breakdown of the game, through the lens of Thomas’ limited minutes:

FIRST QUARTER:
Tipoff, Thomas is on the bench.
With 4:33 left in the first, Thomas finally touches the floor for the Cavaliers. On his first possession, Thomas brought the ball up the court with some speed and fed Jae Crowder for an easy three. Shortly after, he used his lighting-quick first step to split two defenders. He drew a foul, but it was on the floor.

After two missed threes, Thomas sunk a mid range jumper at the 1:09 mark for his first career basket in a Cavaliers uniform. With the quarter nearly over, Thomas was denied after blowing by his man, but a quick Cleveland rebound gave him a second chance. Then he did what he does best: finishing in the lane over a towering defender while earning a trip to the charity stripe. He converted the three-point play.
With the shot clock dead, Thomas tried to shake his defender in an iso situation, but he didn’t create much room for a step-back three. Air ball.
First quarter takeaways: Isaiah is playing his game: aggressive with the ball, willing to shoot, quick first step to make it to the basket. His teammates didn’t over do it in feeding him. He looks like himself out there.

SECOND QUARTER:
Thomas hits a pull up three early in the shot clock at the 10:12 mark. On the defensive end, he got screened with ease, which is expected considering his diminutive, 5-foot-9 frame. Luckily, the Blazers missed the open three.
The Cavaliers call timeout at the 9:32 mark. They started the quarter with a 9-4 run, now up 37-32.
Thomas is out. For now. Through 7:01 minutes of play he has: 8 points, 1 assist, and a +7 plus-minus.

4:52 minute mark Thomas checks back in. Cavaliers are down 47-44. Thomas showcased his vision: hurling the ball to LeBron down low for an easy bucket. 47-46 Blazers.
The next possession, Damian Lillard stuck like glue to Thomas in the pick and roll. Somehow, Thomas escaped the pressure and dished to Crowder for three. Crowder misses. Thomas was frustrated by Lillard’s defense. He got T’d up after complaining to the ref.
3:00 left in the half. With the momentum following the technical foul, Lillard knocks down an easy three after Thomas gets screened again. Blazers now hold a 10-point lead.
Thomas doesn’t do much down the stretch, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Crowder cut the deficit to three by halftime with masterful transition offense.
Second quarter takeaways: Thomas wasn’t as aggressive this quarter, and he didn’t control the ball as much. I’d call LeBron aggressive over labeling Thomas as passive this quarter.
Total time on floor for Thomas at half: 11:53. This is about half of what the Cavaliers said he was going to play tonight. His plus-minus is a solid +5.

THIRD QUARTER:

With 3:13 left in the quarter, Thomas checks back in. He’s guarding Lillard. Not a good idea: Thomas immediately fouled him while getting screened AGAIN. Lillard hits two of three free throws. By next possession, Thomas is guarding Connaughton again. This is a much more favorable matchup.
Even with Thomas in the game, LeBron continued to control the offense this quarter. Thomas crossed Lillard, but his shot was swatted away in the lane. Following a Blazer turnover, Thomas hits a wide open transition three. He has 11 points on the night.
Again, Thomas drives in the lane, but this time the ball was poked out inside.
The next possession, Thomas somehow convinced the ref that Napier had attacked him at the three point line. This was not the case, but he got to the line. Ball don’t lie though: he sunk just one out of three free throws.
With about a minute left, Thomas burst into the lane, then froze. He chucked a bullet at Wade, who drew the foul. Wade makes one.
In the last seconds, Wade fed Thompson an alley-oop. Disclaimer: Wade was secretly sipping from the fountain of youth before this game. He finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Third quarter takeaways: Thomas didn’t play a ton this quarter, but again, he drove in the lane with gusto. He failed to finish this quarter, but we’ll give him a pass for being a tad rusty. He hit a wide open three, and had 20-20 vision to find Wade down low while driving. Typically, he drives to score, not pass.

FOURTH QUARTER:
Thomas picked up a few fouls early in the fourth: a good foul to prevent Ed Davis from scoring an easy bucket, and a not-so-good foul where his elbow whacked Shabazz Napier. Oops.
After missing an open three, Thomas hit a midrange jumper off a pick. Again, Thomas dropped a dime to Wade. Wade did the bulk of the work this time: a smart cut while his defender ball-watched earned him the bucket.
At about the 9:00 mark, Thomas nailed a pull up triple early in the shot clock. Setting screens for him will become a regular strategy for the Cavalier offense. Thomas pulled up again, but missed. Note: LeBron checked out earlier in the fourth. Yet, the Cavaliers extended their lead to 10-points.

Finally, with 8:10 left in the game, Thomas checked out of the game. He promptly slipped on his warm-up jacket, signaling that it’s the end of his Cavalier debut. With 18 minutes on the night, he scored 17 points on 6/12 shooting, and tacked on 3 assists.
Despite the early persistence and physicality of the Blazers, the Cavaliers cruised to a 127-110 win. Cleveland’s bench did a spectacular job, putting up a whopping 61 points.
Takeaways: With Thomas returning to the lineup, it allows guys like Wade, Crowder and Kyle Korver to play their natural positions. Plus, Kevin Love will have more space to operate with considering teams will focus on Thomas as an offensive threat. Finally, Thomas doesn’t have to be a leader. With veterans like LeBron and Wade on the team, Thomas just has to focus on what he does best: scoring.
Now, the big question is how sore he’ll be, and if it’ll slow him down in upcoming games. Hopefully he gets to 100 percent soon, and is free from the restricted-minutes leash.

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