On Toughness and Grit: A Love Letter to the 2016–17 Boston Celtics

Alex Walulik
4 min readDec 2, 2021

The Boston Celtics, led by the 5'9" guard with the heart of a lion, captured my heart and inspire me every day.

I had just started high school.

Beginning high school is difficult and tricky under the best of circumstances. A couple of nights per week, however, I had an escape from the strange situation I was dealing with: the Boston Celtics, led by 5'9" Isaiah Thomas.

Isaiah Thomas was never supposed to be good, neither were the Celtics.

In the summer of 2016, the Celtics signed star center Al Horford in free agency and drafted Jaylen Brown third overall out of the University of California. A successful offseason, certainly. Most nights, the starting lineup was Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Al Horford.

Isaiah Thomas was, as we all know, a 5'9" guard. Avery Bradley was an aggressive on-ball defender but limited offensively. Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson lacked shooting ability. Horford — not an athletic player. Again, the Celtics were never supposed to be good…

Don’t tell Isaiah Thomas that though.

Throughout the season, Isaiah Thomas was a legitimate MVP candidate. He led the C’s to a 53–29 record and the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Yeah, that wasn’t supposed to happen.

IT averaged 28.9 points per game on .463/.379/.909 shooting splits. Of the 76 games that Isaiah played in, he led the Celtics in scoring in 69 of them.

While IT’s stats from that season are incredible, they pale in comparison to the complete, full story of this team. This team played hard every single night — Marcus Smart throwing his body all over the court, Jae Crowder fighting John Wall and everybody else, Amir Johnson putting in work on the boards, and of course, Isaiah Thomas leading the way offensively. They fought their way to the one seed in the East, capturing the hearts of Celtics fans — that hadn’t been done since the Pierce/Garnett days.

Every time you watched the C’s play, there was a pretty good chance you would see something spectacular, likely from Isaiah Thomas himself.

There were so many incredible performances and moments, such as IT dropping 52 against the Heat in late December, or when the C’s smacked the title-favorite Warriors in Oracle.

But, nothing comes close to what happened on the night of May 2.

It was Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Just two weeks after his sister passed away on what would have been her 23rd birthday, Isaiah Thomas scored a career-high 53 points, including 29 in the 4th quarter and overtime.

This was, and still is, the greatest and most emotional basketball performance I’ve ever seen.

5'9" guard.

Drafted 60th overall, the last pick in the NBA Draft.

Played while dealing with the recent death of his sister.

That’s Isaiah Thomas. That’s toughness. That’s grit. And that, that is why I love Isaiah Thomas.

I can picture myself in my dad’s living room, jumping up and down and running around the house screaming in equal parts excitement and disbelief, as IT took over the game while leading the Celtics to the win.

Furthermore, fans also know that with every step, jumper, and rebound, Isaiah Thomas was progressively destroying his hip, literally destroying it, and arguably the rest of his career, for a shot at a championship that season. Once again, that’s just Isaiah Thomas.

When the Eastern Conference Finals began, however, it was evident that IT was done, and so were the Celtics without him. After that, things changed quickly, and they changed drastically. Personally, I graduated high school, I was able to maintain my amazing friendships, and I have established an exciting life for myself at American University.

In terms of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas was traded away for Kyrie Irving. Tatum was drafted. Gordon Hayward was brought in. But it all fell apart quickly.

Well, not completely. Tatum is spectacular, Brown is an emerging All-Star, and Marcus Smart is still doing Marcus Smart things.

To the 2016–17 Celtics, thank you for gifting me with such great memories, and an escape from one of the craziest transitions of my life. I’ll never forget about this season, and I’ll always appreciate the 2016–17 squad.



P.S. My friends going to be pissed if I don’t include the most important quote from the season: “KELLY OLYNYK CAN DO NO WRONG.”