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The Cleveland Cavaliers have spent the first 38 games of the 2017-18 season in a quest to solve The Great Unknown.
The Great Unknown being, of course, just how good they can be and at what level they can play once all the pierces are in place and the team is 100 healthy.
Tonight, the biggest piece of what remains of The Great Unknown will begin to find its place when Isaiah Thomas starts at point guard when the Cavaliers (25-13) invade Orlando to take on the struggling Magic (12-27). On top of that, Derrick Rose, who was signed in the offseason with the idea of manning the point for Cleveland until Thomas returned from a serious hip injury and then backing him up, could return sometime during the team’s current five-game road trip. Also, guard Iman Shumpert is continuing to work his way back after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Thomas, for one, didn’t even attempt to mask his excitement at the prospect of even more playing time with his new squad. He scored 17 points in 19 minutes in his debut as a Cavalier against visiting Portland on Tuesday.
After earning All-Star recognition twice as a member of the Boston Celtics, where he was pretty much a One-Man Gang in terms of producing the team’s offense through double-teams and schemes designed to stop him, he is frothing at the mouth at playing alongside such standouts as fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love.
“I’m just used to two or three guys always on me,” Thomas told reporters after a practice session Friday in Orlando. “So with guys like LeBron and Kevin Love on the court and J.R. Smith, they got to respect those guys and the two or three guys (on defense) are going to be on No. 23, so I got a lot of space and it seems like the court is more open than it has been in the past.”
Which is exactly what Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue envisioned from the get-go after the Cavaliers acquired Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick in the 2018 draft and Miami’s second-round choice in 2020 back on Aug. 22.
He reiterated that point after a poor performance in Boston resulted in a 102-88 loss Wednesday night when informed his team had fallen 4.5 games behind Eastern Conference-leading Boston. That deficit reached five full games with the Celtics’ 91-84 conquest of the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night at TD Garden.
“Having IT out — an NBA second-team guy who averaged 29 points a game and an All-Star — having him out, having D-Rose, out, our backup point guard, the whole season, I think we’ve done a good job holding the fort down,” Lue told reporters after Friday’s practice after practice. “That’s why I said (that) the other night. Once we get our full team, get healthy, then things are gonna change and things will be different.”
While he returned to the court Tuesday night against Portland after missing Cleveland’s first 36 games of the season, the 5-foot-9 Thomas admitted after Friday’s practice that he’s not close to being where he wants, or even was.
“Man, 80 (percent), probably,” he responded when asked to measure what level he believes he is entering his first start as a Cavalier. “Like, I’m not in any type of shape. And then on top of where I want to be physically, I’m not as powerful as I want to be and explosive.
“But that’s going to come with a lot of practice) reps and game repetitions. So, I’m getting close, but it will probably take a while until I feel like I did last season.”
“Last season,” all Thomas did was lead the Eastern Conference in scoring at 28.9 points per game, the third-best mark in the entire NBA. Though he’s now on a minutes restriction, and won’t play in both ends of back-to-backs for now, Thomas isn’t sure how a few extra minutes tonight will affect him, one way or another.
“I don’t think it will feel that much different,” Thomas said Friday. “I’m trying to get them to let me play a little more. Especially, [because] I played all right the first game that I played, so I’m — trust me — I’m on them about playing a little more because for the most part I feel fine.
“I’m a little sore, and I expected to be sore and a little stiff, but for the most part, my body feels good.”
How quickly Thomas’ minutes are ramped up and he’s permitted to play in both ends of back-to-backs remains a fluid situation.
“When will it be? I don’t know,” Lue said. “I mean just, when he’s feeling great. I don’t ever know the timetable on that, though. I don’t make that decision. They have their remedy, what they think works, so just kind of stick with it.”
What must Thomas prove to be able to have the current limitations on his minutes expanded, if not lifted altogether?
“Whenever (the training and medical staffs) say it, we’ll just continue to, you know, keep slowly increasing,” Lue said. “So I don’t know, right now.”
Thomas himself said his body handled its first taste of NBA action in seven months — since he played in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals for the Celtics against the Cavaliers, then sat out the last three games of the series won by Cleveland, 4-1 — about as well as could be reasonably expected.
“It is a little hip soreness, but that’s from I haven’t played in so long and then on top of that, I’m just taking care of my body with massages and things like that,” he said. “So the more I get comfortable in playing in basketball games, I think the less soreness I’ll have.”
In the meantime, Thomas will continue to embrace his rehabilitation, which he’s termed “#theSLOWgrind,” with full force.
“I’m just staying on top of my rehab,” he said. “Getting massages each and every day, and just staying on top of everything. That’s just going to be what it is the rest of my career. Even when I feel 100 percent, I got to stay on top of getting my hip activated and doing things like that.”
Based on how he played, not to mention on his teammates, who received “a jolt” from Thomas being out there playing alongside them as Cavaliers sixth-man Dwyane Wade said, he feels the way he played against Portland has helped him prepare for his first start as a Cavalier tonight.
“When I pulled up for jumpers, when I did moves, I felt like I was — I felt quick out there,” he said. “And it’s been a long time for me feeling like that. But there was a few things I did out there where I’m like, ‘OK, I’m confident in doing that now.’ And I could move. For the most part, I could get where I want. It’s just that I’m not as powerful as I was last season and it’s going to take time, and I know that.
“So, I’ll be all right.”