BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas is back in the Celtics' starting lineup after missing two games with a knee injury.
And his return could not have come at a better time, with the Celtics hosting the Washington Wizards tonight.
The C's (44-26) have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference this season, with the Wizards (42-27) on their heels at 1 1/2 games back.
Boston needs to win tonight to have a shot at winning a tie-breaker if it finishes with an identical regular-season record as Washington. And the return of Thomas, the league's No. 2 scorer at 29.2 points per game, can only help.
The Celtics split a pair of road games at Brooklyn (win) and Philadelphia (loss) with Thomas back in Boston recovering from a bruised knee injury suffered against Minnesota last week.
This season, the Celtics are just 2-4 when Thomas doesn't play, so his return to the lineup provides a much-needed boost in what will be a critical game to their potential seeding for the postseason.
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BOSTON – When it comes to stockpiling talent, few in the NBA have done it better in the past couple of years than the Golden State Warriors, as evidenced by them winning two of the past three NBA championships.
In 2015, Andre Iguodala was the NBA Finals MVP but it was the play another reserve, Festus Ezeli, who in the third quarter of the decisive Game 6, scored eight of his 10 points and helped extend a two-point halftime edge into a 12-point lead going into the fourth in what eventually was an eight-point series-clinching victory.
We have seen the Cleveland Cavaliers make deep playoff runs led by their Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but the contributions of youngsters such as Matt Dellavedova (now in Milwaukee) also helped.
Indeed, often lost in the success of title-contending teams is how they manage to have enough max-salaried talent on the roster, while also augmenting the lineup with contributions from younger players or inexpensive veterans on team-friendly contracts.
Balancing the best of those two worlds is among the many reasons why the Celtics are considered a legit contender to get to the NBA Finals this season out of the East.
A lot has been made of the team’s signing of Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $127.8 million contract.
But what really makes the Celtics so special is how they have been able to add a max-salaried player each of the past two seasons (Al Horford and Hayward) at a time when the contributions of Isaiah Thomas ($6.26 million this year) and Jae Crowder ($6.8 million this season) are significant not only in terms of what they do on the floor but even more so in how little they make salary-wise relative to those contributions.
Boston getting the most out of talent playing on low-salary deals will be instrumental in their ability to build off the success of last season when the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2012.
And while the Warriors have achieved this by adding veterans on the cheap (David West), Boston has been more traditional from the standpoint of getting as much bang as they can from players on their rookie deals.
Boston currently has 16 players with guaranteed contracts.
Of that total, nine (Marcus Smart; Terry Rozier; Jaylen Brown; Ante Zizic; Abdel Nader; Jayson Tatum; Semi Ojeleye; Daniel Theis and Guerschon Yabusele) are on their rookie contracts.
“You always need young guys,” Austin Ainge, the Celtics' director of player personnel, told CSNNE.com. “Your veteran guys make a lot of money and so you need some guys on rookie contracts to fill out your roster.”
This is especially true for teams that are in the hunt to win an NBA title.
Ainge recalled how the use of players on rookie deals was instrumental in Boston bringing home Banner 17 in 2008.
“We had [Rajon] Rondo and Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe and Big Baby [Glen Davis] in 2008,” Ainge said. “You need guys like that. You look at the teams in the finals the past few years, they’ve got some young guys on lower money contracts contributing. That’s important.”