Isaiah Thomas continuing to do the unimaginable
BOSTON – The plane touched down just after 3 a.m. Sunday, its bleary-eyed passengers disembarking for a car ride that wouldn’t get any of them home until after 4. How does Isaiah Thomas do it? It’s a question asked often this postseason, as Thomas has fought through the overwhelming grief of losing his sister, Chyna, to submit a string of brilliant performances. How does Thomas do it? It’s a question we ask again after Thomas, less than 24 hours after the tears poured down at Chyna’s funeral, less than 10 after the private jet carrying Thomas, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and assistant coach Jerome Allen touched down, had a 33-point, nine-assist effort in Boston’s 123-111 Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards.
Thomas wishes this wasn’t a story. Chyna was supposed to be here, in the stands, cheering on her brother, not in a Tacoma, Wash., graveyard. At Saturday’s service, through dark sunglasses and emotion he could beat back no longer, Thomas revealed Chyna’s death made him consider something he never had before: quitting.
He didn’t, he couldn’t, and now here he is, the leader of a second-round playoff team, a franchise player proving his worth. A lost tooth in the first quarter – courtesy of an Otto Porter elbow – did little to slow him, and the gap between his front teeth provided some needed levity when the game was over.
“I like it,” Avery Bradley said. “He looks a little tougher.”
Added Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “He and my 7-year-old daughter just gave each other the open-tooth smile.” Noting that Thomas made two straight threes after the tooth came out, Stevens said, “Maybe that tooth was holding him back.”
Across the team, across the league, there is no shortage of awe for what Thomas is doing. Kevin Garnett left Thomas a heartfelt message last week, a message Thomas played for the entire team. Stevens has repeatedly told Thomas to take as much time as he needs, that family comes first. Yet there has been Thomas, game after game, available, contributing.
“I’ve just been in continual amazement the last couple of weeks with his ability to function on the basketball court and excel on the basketball court,” Stevens said. “Today’s just like another chapter of that. Amazed.”
Added the Celtics’ Al Horford: “It was unreal. Everything that is going on for him off the court, and for him to still be able to function at this level, his will is very impressive. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it in that way, and he’s able to come in here and say, ‘No excuses,’ [when] he has a perfectly good excuse. He still comes out, he’s focused [like] he flew back with us from Chicago yesterday … it’s just a credit to him and his way to get prepared for the game.”
Heartache consumed Thomas in Boston’s first-round series against Chicago, and against the Wizards he faces it again – and more. John Wall represents a new challenge for Thomas, and after one game it will be a big one. Wall’s speed was too much for Thomas early, propelling Washington to a 17-point, first-quarter lead, forcing Stevens to switch Thomas onto Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre. The Wizards didn’t exploit that matchup in Game 1, but few teams attack Thomas as relentlessly as Washington, so expect that to change moving forward.
“They were a little more aggressive than we were,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “Our defense slipped a little. We lacked some IQ and focus.”
The Celtics avoided a catastrophic first-round loss to Chicago, and inside the locker room the confidence is growing. Horford continues to produce, with Sunday’s 21-point, 10-rebound effort the latest in a run of solid games. Horford is a lightning rod for criticism in Boston, with fans forgetting a $113 million contract can’t transform a 15-points-per-game scorer into one averaging 20. Yet Horford was a big reason the Celtics were able to dig out of a two-game hole against the Bulls, and his ability to tangle with Marcin Gortat in the paint was instrumental in Boston’s win Sunday.
For the Celtics, everything’s working. A 16-point, first-quarter hole didn’t discourage them. Stevens recalled a huddle once run by his former boss at Butler, Todd Lickliter. “He said, ‘I don’t know if our plan of letting them score until they get tired is a good one,’” Stevens said. “That’s all I could think about, because I didn’t know if we’d ever score or they would ever stop scoring.”
They did, and from the second quarter on Boston was in control. Kelly Olynyk engineered the early comeback with 12 first-half points, and the Wizards were buried under an avalanche of 3-pointers that the Celtics knocked down at a 48.7 percent clip. Thomas made five of them and assisted on six more, turning that 17-point deficit into a 15-point, third-quarter lead.
When the game ended, Thomas tapped his chest and bowed his head, the emotion again washing over him, another stunning performance in the books. “He’s one of the biggest winners in this league,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Incredible talent. One of the best players in basketball.” The pain of losing Chyna won’t dissipate anytime soon, but Thomas has found a way to channel it now. Quitting isn’t an option, Thomas said at the funeral. He plays for her now.
One series down, a game of the second in the books, and Thomas just keeps moving forward. He smiled a gap-toothed smile at reporters after the game, cracking about how he now looks like teammates he used to clown. He never wanted this, hates this, but this much is clear: What Thomas is doing this postseason is remarkable.