ORLANDO, Fla. — Isaiah Thomas‘ self-proclaimed “slow grind” sped up significantly this week. The diminutive guard used the phrase in countless social media posts as a hashtag to describe his rehabilitation process from the torn labrum in his right hip that kept him out of NBA action for 7½ months. Now, after sitting out the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals followed by the first 36 games of the regular season, he’s back.
Thomas made his Cleveland Cavaliers debut Tuesday, coming off the bench to score 17 points in 19 minutes in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers. And he’ll make his first start with the Cavs on Saturday, taking over the spot that Jose Calderon filled as a stopgap solution, when Cleveland plays the Orlando Magic. His minute restriction will be loosened, if only incrementally.
“I don’t think it will feel that much different,” Thomas said Friday when asked whether he’ll be able to tell how an extra five or so minutes will affect him. “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.”
Just how good? As prideful as Thomas is, the two-time All-Star admits he isn’t returning at full throttle.
“Man, 80 [percent], probably,” he said when asked to measure where he is. “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.”
The Cavs are in no rush to remove the limit on Thomas’ playing time. Nor will they say when Thomas will no longer be limited to participating in only one leg of the back-to-backs they play — the stipulation that kept him out of the lineup in Wednesday’s much-anticipated matchup when Cleveland played in Boston.
The team is wary of how the final weeks of Thomas’ rehab played out, with the drumbeat getting louder every day from speculative reports about when he would play his first game. The team announced at the start of training camp that it expected Thomas to be back playing in games by Jan. 1 — and he returned Jan. 2, the Cavs’ first game after the turn of the new year. Still, there were some outside the team who wondered why he missed Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors and that Jan. 3 game against the Celtics.
Even Thomas himself admitted Wednesday night in Boston, “I always wanted to play in this game, but I thought I would be back a little sooner to be able to play.”
From here on out, the Cavs won’t attach a timeline to when Thomas’ minute restriction is expected to be lifted or to when he will be able to play both games of a back-to-back. They are putting that power in the hands of the team’s training staff and consider it a day-to-day process that will be fluid based on how Thomas’ body feels.
“When will it be? I don’t know,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said in response to being asked when Thomas would be 100 percent. “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 does Thomas have to show in order to play more?
“Whenever [the trainers] say it, we’ll just continue to, you know, keep slowly increasing,” Lue said. “So I don’t know right now.”
Thomas isn’t rushing things, either. On Friday he said that, even though he’s back playing games, he and George Sibel, the Cavs’ physical therapist who has been instrumental in Thomas’ comeback process, look at it as if Thomas just started a six-month marathon. The end, hopefully, won’t be until the NBA Finals in June. He wants to be able to be sprinting through the finish line.
The initial returns are encouraging, however.
After playing in only one scrimmage against the Cavs’ G League affiliate, the Canton Charge, and two scrimmages against his actual Cavs teammates before making his debut against the Blazers, Thomas’ body bounced back as well as one could hope for.
“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,” Thomas said. “So the more I get comfortable in playing in basketball games, I think the less soreness I’ll have.”
He’ll play Saturday against the Magic, get a day’s rest, then play Monday against Minnesota, barring any setback. Then he’ll get two days of rest before he plays Thursday against Toronto. And then when the Cavs finish their five-game road trip Friday in Indiana, he’ll sit out, as the back-to-back restriction will still be enforced.
By the time the Cavs reach the next back-to-back on their schedule — Jan. 30 versus Detroit followed by Jan. 31 versus Miami — that could have changed. As for when the Cavs go back to Boston on Feb. 11, Thomas said, “I can wait and put on a show then.”
After his first game, Thomas declared he was already prepared to go back to playing 40 minutes (he averaged 33.8 minutes for Boston last season and 34.7 minutes in the playoffs). The only reason he is able to say that, however, is because of the dedication he shows 180 minutes before tipoff, when he begins his hip activation routine at the arena.
Dwyane Wade describes the impact Isaiah Thomas has on the Cavaliers, saying Thomas’ presence on the floor creates opportunities for his teammates.
“I’m just staying on top of my rehab,” Thomas 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.”
He hopes all of that slow grind off the court will translate to speed on it.
“When I pulled up for jumpers, when I did moves, I felt like I was — I felt quick out there,” Thomas said, reflecting on the Portland game. “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.”