ATLANTA -- When your fourth-quarter exploits have reached such acclaim that your own team gives you the "Game of Thrones"-inspired nickname "The King in the Fourth," you earn some extremely rare privileges. Like being able to wave off your coach before a key final possession, even if he's regarded as one of the best X's and O's guys in the league.
So when Paul Millsap's 3-pointer tied Friday's game with 25 seconds to play, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas immediately looked toward coach Brad Stevens and waved off the timeout that would have otherwise come. Thomas wasn't about to let this win get away, not on teammate Al Horford's first game back in Atlanta, and not after Boston led by double digits just five minutes earlier.
Thomas dribbled down the clock and then accelerated down the right side just enough to get a step on defender Kent Bazemore. When Bazemore scrambled to recover and help came to clog the paint, Thomas put on the brakes, then -- in his very best Paul Pierce impression -- splashed a 19-foot step-back jumper to lift his team to a 103-101 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.
Thomas, the NBA's leader in fourth-quarter scoring, registered 13 of his team-high 28 points in the final frame. Things should have been easier for a Boston team that led by as many as 20 with 15:23 to play, but in fumbling away the lead, it only set the stage for Thomas' lore to grow.
"I think [Stevens] was trying to call timeout at first. Then he was trying to do a play to run a pick-and-roll, but I called it off a little bit," Thomas said. "And he trusts me. At the end he said, ‘hell of a shot.’ It was something I wanted to try to take advantage of.
"Bazemore had that look in his face like he was going to get a stop, and I had other plans."
Stevens is a bit of a whiteboard wizard, and that's reflected in Boston ranking third in the NBA while averaging 0.968 points per play on ATO (after-timeout plays), according to Synergy Sports data. The Celtics, as a team, average only 0.867 points per play in isolation, which would seem to suggest that a timeout is beneficial in a late-game situation.
But Thomas has been stellar in isolation this season. He averages a ridiculous 1.22 points per play, which ranks in the 95th percentile among all NBA players. Of the 73 players who qualify with at least 40 isolation plays this season, Thomas ranks No. 1 in the NBA while shooting 50 percent.
Bazemore played solid defense, recovering in time for a solid contest on the 5-foot-9 Thomas' jumper. But with a little bit of his familiar rainbow arc on the shot, Thomas produced the winner.
Stevens admitted that Thomas has a green light in those situations. Asked how he earned that trust, Stevens responded, "Makes a boatload of shots."
Added Stevens: "Usually you’d call timeout in that situation, but he actually -- I could see him down the court, kinda wave off the idea of a timeout. I told him, ‘All right, go win the game.’ That’s what you have to do if you wave off an idea of a timeout. I trust him to do that, and ultimately, he’s made so many big plays you believe in your guy."
When Millsap missed a jumper that would have forced overtime on Atlanta's final gasp, Horford emphatically pumped his first before quickly collecting himself and embracing some of his former teammates. After hearing boos during lineup introductions and again at the start of his tribute video at the end of the first quarter, Horford appeared to take great satisfaction in his new team finding a way to pull out a win.
"We really wanted to dig this one out for Al -- he really deserved it," said Kelly Olynyk, who got thrust into elevated activity and responded with maybe his best game of the season by putting up 26 points during 32 minutes. Olynyk was a team-best plus-20 in plus/minus.
Horford acknowledged hearing the boos. He missed two free throws after getting fouled on one of the game's first possessions but downplayed the notion that he might have had some nervous energy at the start of the game.
As for the boos, Horford said, "They were unexpected. I don’t want to say anything, but it is what it is. I know there’s a lot of fans out there that appreciated my time here, and I appreciate them."
He otherwise enjoyed the 90-second tribute video the Hawks produced that traced his Atlanta journey from draft night to some of his biggest wins with the Hawks to his work in the community. When it ended with a "Thank you, Al" message, the confounding sparse crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Thomas told the story earlier this week of how, in his second game after getting traded, he played against the Phoenix Suns team that dealt him to Boston. Despite not knowing many of his new teammates, they all pledged to get him a win that night. This was Thomas' turn to ensure Horford left Atlanta with a victory.
"That’s all we wanted. I heard a few boos at the beginning when they called his name, but I’m glad they appreciated him when they did a standing ovation because he’s a hell of a -- not just basketball player -- but hell of a guy," said Thomas. "And we needed to get that win for him. We knew it was big for him."
Thomas, too, admitted he was surprised to hear boos for Horford. He dubbed them "disrespectful," while noting, "None of them people booing are turning down that money." Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston this past summer after nine seasons in Atlanta, finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists during 35 minutes.
Still, this night belonged to Thomas, who is averaging 9.9 points per game in the fourth quarter. Thomas, who embraced Kevin Garnett's recent assertion that he deserves to be in the MVP conversation, is making a heck of a case for a starting role for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, even if that means likely taking a fourth quarter off that night.
Until then, he'll continue to embrace the final 12 minutes. Teammates were playfully asking Thomas if he knew what time it is as he prepared to meet with the media after his winner.
"You know what time it is, man," Thomas said. "You know what time it is."