BOSTON – His tongue kept trying to fill in the hole where his tooth used to be. The pain was ridiculous. He was going to need dental surgery. How much more would he endure to repair his smile?
Everyone watching Isaiah Thomas -- the sellout 18,624 fans in TD Garden and the millions more all around the world -- should have been able to imagine what he was thinking. But these were not the usual circumstances. For these two longest weeks of his young life, nothing has been normal.
“I’ve taken a thousand hits like that and my tooth never came out,” said Thomas, 28, shaking his head after the Boston Celtics had recovered from an early 17-point hole to win Game 1 of their Eastern semifinal Sunday 123-111 against the Washington Wizards.
The context of Thomas’s 33 points (5 of 11 from the arc) and nine assists (with just 2 turnovers) was obvious to those who have been consoling and admiring him in recent days. How much more punishment was he supposed to take?
“In comparison to what he’s gone through, even he was laughing about it there for a while,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens.
He was being tested every which way. Thomas had returned home at 4 a.m. Sunday – nine hours before the 1 p.m. tipoff – from the funeral he attended Saturday in Tacoma, Wash., for his younger sister Chyna, who died on the eve of the playoffs in a one-car accident.
“When I found out the news, I wanted to give up and quit - and never in my life have I ever thought about quitting,” Thomas had said at the funeral. “I realized quitting isn’t an option. That’s the easy way out. I will keep going for my sister, as I know she wouldn’t want me to stop. I love you, Chyna, and I miss you so much. And everything I do for the rest of my life will be for you. I love you, girl.”
Thomas looked heavy-lidded the next day as he and his teammates missed their first half-dozen shots. The No. 4 Wizards, hungry to win their first game here since 2013-14, ran out to a fast-paced 16-0 lead.
“We were in trouble, obviously,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, who quickly reworked the rotations that had earned four straight wins for the top-seeded Celtics against Chicago. Within four minutes Gerald Green – the surprise hero of Boston’s small-ball lineup - was being replaced by Amir Johnson as the Celtics tried to go bigger, while Marcus Smart (for Jae Crowder) and Kelly Olynyk (for Al Horford) were drafted off the bench for emergency duty. In the meantime, 5-9 Thomas was being swapped onto a variety of defensive mismatches in search of one that would do the least damage.
“I’ve just been in continual amazement the last couple of weeks with his ability to function and excel on the basketball court,” said Stevens of Thomas. “And today is just another chapter of that.”
Thomas had already broken the Wizards’ opening run with a trio of free throws four minutes into the game - the crowd responding with a sarcastic roar – when he found himself chasing 6-8 Otto Porter into the paint. As Porter turned to complete the catch-and-shoot jumper, his right elbow surgically displaced Thomas’s front left tooth. Thomas could be seen running across the court to pick up his tooth and remove it to the sideline.
“I’ve had teammates that I’ve always clowned about their teeth being out,” he said, shaking his head. “And now I’m one of them.”
Very soon, after making a 3-pointer, Thomas was turning to the sideline and smiling to reveal up close to his teammates and coaches the latest source of injury. Mind the gap! Next time down, obliviously, he was pirouetting on the far side of the floor for another 3-pointer.
Thomas was led back to the locker room for medical treatment. He returned in the second quarter to find that his teammates had closed the deficit to 42-39, thanks in no small part to 10 first-quarter points from Olynyk. By halftime Thomas was leading the field with 19 sleek points and four assists – numbers that revealed no hint of all that he was overcoming.
“Everything that’s going on for him off the court, and for him to still be able to function at this level – it’s just strong character,” said Al Horford, who contributed an exquisite line of 21 points (10 of 13), 10 assists and nine rebounds. “His will is very impressive. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it in that way. He’s able to come in here and say, ‘No excuses,’ but he has a perfectly good excuse and he still comes out, he’s focused. It’s just a credit to him and his way to get prepared for the game.”
The momentum of their early comeback continued for the Celtics. Since falling behind by 17 in the opening quarter, they outscored their guests 90-58 to take a 15-point advantage into the fourth.
“When you lose the third quarter by 20 points, it’s tough to keep up,” said Washington coach Scott Brooks. “But we did.”
Washington generated big games from its backcourt of Bradley Beal (27 points) and John Wall (20 points and 16 assists, though offset by eight turnovers). Marcin Gortat and Porter each contributed 16 points, while Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) and Bojan Bogdanovic (10) scored in double-figures off the bench. But the big takeaway was a second-quarter sprained ankle suffered by starting power forward Markieff Morris, whose absence undid Washington’s large advantage on the boards and increased the pressure on its bench.
Even as the Wizards closed to within 106-99 with 5:41 left, the Celtics were flaunting their diversity of options. Stevens turned to No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown, who had totaled 30 minutes with a DNP in the opening round.
“Bogdanovic had hit a couple of shots, and I thought Jaylen did a good job on Bogdanovic in one of our games earlier this year when I was watching film,” said Stevens. The rookie responded instantly with a corner 3-pointer as Boston pulled away.
There was much for Boston to celebrate in the short term. In addition to Horford’s near triple-double, Jae Crowder (24 points) was also highly efficient while Avery Bradley (18 points and four steals) continued to be a two-way force. Altogether the Celtics tied their franchise playoff record with 19 3-pointers (on 39 attempts), and this comeback was their largest in the playoffs since they recovered from 24 points down to beat the Lakers on their way to winning the 2008 NBA Finals. But the most promising sign of all Sunday was from Thomas.
“It just bothers me to talk,” he said after the game. “My tongue goes right through my tooth.”
And yet he was smiling.
Chyna Thomas would have turned 23 years old on Tuesday, when her brother will be back in uniform, following hours of likely dental surgery, to play Game 2 here. How can Isaiah Thomas smile? And yet smile he does.
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