In terms of commanding a basketball game, a serious Seattle hoops fan might have to go past Brandon Roy, through Gary Payton, around Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson and all the way back to the early-1970s prime of Lenny Wilkens to find a similar moment where a backcourt player was, for two hours, king of all he surveyed.
Not saying Isaiah Thomas is better than any of those guys. But on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, the stump from Tacoma grabbed his Washington Huskies teammates as have few others in our sports history and pulled them through the crucible.
The man played all but two of the 125 minutes available to him in the Pac-10 Tournament at Staples Center over three days yet, incredibly, saved the two best moments for the last minute and last second.
Game tied in overtime at 75, 19 seconds and no timeouts. He calmly brought the ball upcourt by himself, waved away his teammates, then backed down his defender. He created space by jab-stepping, then leaned back and lofted from 18 feet.
The clock, parroting the shot, drifted down from two to one to zero.
A splendid game between Washington and Arizona, wrapping up a largely indifferent Pac-10 season and certainly a disjointed Huskies year, ended with a ta-dah that actually needs three exclamation points. So . . .
The last of his 28 points delivered the game, 77-75, the tourney (3-0 Washington), the Most Outstanding Player award, as well as the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, place and seed to be offered on Selection Sunday.
Cool as all that was for the Huskies and their fans, the delivery that demonstrated to me the command that is so essential under pressure came on the possession before he dropped the hammer.
Inside the final minute and ahead 73-72, Washington’s Justin Holiday rebounded an errant Arizona shot and gave the outlet pass to Thomas. The order of the moment was calm deliberation: Work the ball upcourt, take time off the clock, get a good shot or draw a foul.
Keep in mind that this was the last of three games in three days, and Thomas was weary. He’d missed three consecutive free throws, and clanked a 22-footer from the top of the key.
But as he looked down the floor, he spotted teammate C.J. Wilcox all alone on the baseline, behind the Arizona defense. Without hestitation from 60 feet away, his powerful left arm lasered a pass that traveled without arc into Wilcox’s eager mitts.
Wilcox exploded to the hoop and dunked unbothered, Huskies fans erupting. That pass broke every rule of the moment but was the kind of decision and execution that guards from Bob Cousy to Jason Kidd made to separate themselves and their teams from the rest. Thomas saw the moment and seized it.
That pass by itself could have qualified as the game-breaker but Arizona was not prepared to be broken. Thomas-to-Wilcox was not a winning touchdown.
It merely put Washington ahead 75-72 with 44 seconds left. To the credit of the Wildcats, who were every bit as stout throughout as Washington, they were unfazed. At 19 seconds, Kevin Parrom bloodlessly drained a three-pointer to tie.
That left Thomas to take over the game as he had done so many times Saturday — he scored 19 of Washington’s 33 first-half points — with his deliberate walk-up and stare-down.
The shot instantly fixed itself into Washington basketball lore. But it was the pass before the shot that demonstrated what a great commander of the game, as Roy, Payton, Kidd, Williams, Johnson and Wilkens, does with the ball, the moment and fearlessness.