When asked to summarize his feelings toward the city of Boston in one word, Thomas said: "Home."
"I went through a real-life situation when I lost my sister. This whole city and organization went through it with me," said Thomas, who was healthy and available to play against the Celtics for the first time since being part of the Kyrie Irving trade in September 2018. "The love is always there, but that took it to another level. I went through the worst situation you could possibly go through in life with these people, and they were right there with me. That is why Boston meant so much to me."
He received all of that love -- and then some -- with 7:06 remaining in the first quarter of Monday's game, when the Celtics honored Thomas for his two-plus seasons with the franchise with a tribute video during the first in-game timeout.
Thomas was injured last season when his then-team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, visited the Celtics on Jan. 3. By Feb. 11, when the Celtics had tentatively scheduled a tribute, he had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He signed with the Nuggets in the offseason.
When the video began on Monday night, Thomas, who had been riding an exercise bike in the tunnel, walked out to the court and watched it as the crowd rose to its feet. Once the video was done, fans began an ovation that lasted well over a minute and left Thomas -- who was shown on the Jumbotron multiple times -- clearly moved.
He flashed a peace sign to the fans, and then tapped his left wrist twice -- what he used to do here when "IT Time" came around.
"That was everything," Thomas said. "I appreciate them for doing that. That meant a lot.
"I got my college jersey retired -- that was big. But this ... you can't even describe that feeling. ... It was big-time.
"I appreciate them for doing that, especially for not being able to be in a situation where I'm playing right now, this type of love is something that I wanted, that I needed, and I'm glad I was able to come back, and the love was just amazing."
Thomas also tweeted after the game.
Damn that was special!!!!!— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 19, 2019
When the video played, it wasn't clear if Thomas would even play. A short time later, though, Thomas -- who had been warming up in the tunnel both before and after the tribute video, came to the scorer's table and checked in to another standing ovation at the 2:42 mark of the first quarter.
It was the first time Thomas, who is averaging 7.7 points and shooting 36.4 percent from the floor (including 26.5 percent from 3-point range) had appeared in a game since being removed from Denver's rotation prior to their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 12; Nuggets coach Mike Malone had decided to shorten his rotation ahead of the playoffs.
And Thomas did little to disprove Malone's decision in his return on Monday, going scoreless in 6:50 of game action in the first half, missing both of his shots and committing a turnover to go with two assists. Denver was outscored by eight points when Thomas was on the court. He didn't play in the second half.
"Very tough decision," Malone said. "If you know the history between Isaiah and myself, I think that relationship had a lot to do with him choosing Denver, and coming to Denver to play. And, after nine games, to call him into a meeting and let him know I was going to shorten the rotation and he was going to be out of the rotation, it wasn't easy, and it wasn't something I enjoyed doing."
Malone went on to say he had been impressed by the way Thomas has handled the news and supported his teammates. But when asked directly whether the veteran would get minutes in his return to the home of his greatest NBA successes, Malone did everything he could to avoid committing to it.
"We really haven't spoken a whole lot about the situation since the initial conversation a few weeks ago," Malone said. "I know this game is, I believe, the first game he'll be back here with a chance to play since he left, and that's not lost on me. We'll see. You never know what can happen in a basketball game.
"I just know these fans are going to give him the reception he deserves, and I'm excited to see that and I know it will be an emotional night for him."
Thomas said this is the first time he doesn't feel pain since the hip issues that caused his final season with the Celtics to end after Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. The same issues derailed him last season, as he initially tried to avoid having surgery but struggled mightily with the Cavaliers and was later traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played out the season and then became a free agent.
"I went through the worst situation you could possibly go through in life with these people and they were right there with me. That is why Boston meant so much to me."Isaiah Thomas
Thomas insisted, however, that he can still get back to the level he was before the hip issues sent his star plummeting after earning a pair of All-Star selections and an All-NBA nod in his two full seasons with the Celtics.
"I just want a legit opportunity," he said. "Whatever the role may be, it's going to be. But I know I can play at a high level again. And if given the opportunity, I can be an All-Star, I can be All-NBA, I can be all that, because I physically feel great.
"But it's all about the opportunity. If I get an opportunity I'm going to be ready for it, I'm going to take full advantage of it. And when this summer comes, I'm going to just figure out what's the best opportunity, what's the best situation for myself and my family, and then go from there."
Thomas wore a pair of green and gold shoes that, he said, were prepared for the 2017 NBA Finals had Boston gotten that far. Instead, the Celtics lost in five games in the Eastern Conference finals to the Cavaliers -- a series of which Thomas missed the final three games because of the hip issues that have plagued him ever since.
He was then traded for Irving that summer and didn't play in Boston again until Monday night. That didn't stop him from pronouncing that things would've been different in Boston had he not been moved.
"Yeah, we would have probably won a championship already," he said. "But it was tough when it happened because it was out of nowhere, and I was hurt. Like I said earlier, if I was able to play after the trade, I think it would have been easier for me to get through that.
"But I don't hold any grudges. I'm through it. Things happen. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm just glad to be back healthy and be back out there."