BOSTON -- "Today is my sister’s birthday," Isaiah Thomas was saying late Tuesday night.
Thomas had scored 53 points, one point short of the Boston Celtics’ postseason record set in 1973 by John Havlicek. He had driven his top-seeded Celtics to a 129-119 overtime win over the Washington Wizards and a 2-0 lead in theirEastern Conference semifinal series.
"So she would have been 23 today," Thomas went on. "The least I can do is go out there and play for her."
There was no joy in what he had done. He covered his eyes for a moment of privacy, and then wiped free the tears.
There have been many reasons for him not to play since the death of his younger sister, Chyna Thomas, in a one-car highway accident on the eve of the playoffs. Compounding Thomas’s misery were the six hours he spent in dental surgery on Monday to replace the front left tooth that had been knocked out in the first quarter of the preceding afternoon, when Thomas had gone on to score 33 points while leading the Celtics to their comeback from an opening 16-0 deficit. On Tuesday night he would thank the team of doctors and dentists who saved his other teeth while creating a mouth guard for him to wear in Game 2.
And yet his mouth was swollen badly on Tuesday, the unavoidable result of so many best efforts. "There was a point today when he was not feeling good at all, and was having a tough day, and I thought he was going to really have to gut this one out," said Boston coach Brad Stevens. "And he not only guts it out, he ends up with 50."
"It just wasn’t a good day for me, with it being my sister’s birthday and being in the hospital for three or four hours," said Thomas, who had returned for additional treatment. "But once I was around the guys and being in the arena, I felt I could go. No way I couldn’t play on her birthday. I wanted to win for her and I wanted to play well for her."
His foil was John Wall, the Wizards’ All-Star who for most of Game 2 was on the verge of changing the narrative. Wall added to Thomas’s challenges Tuesday with a sensational line of 40 points (16 of 32), 13 assists, three steals and three blocks.
The dueling point guards each had scored 40 points as the Wizards clung to a one-point lead with 64 seconds remaining in regulation. But then the final half-dozen minutes were played out as if Wall didn’t know what he was up against. Thomas would convert 5 of 6 from the field for 13 points, while Wall would go scoreless while missing all four of his shots.
Ever since losing their opening two playoff games at home last month against the Chicago Bulls, the Celtics have won six in a row while Thomas has been driven by a desire that has transcended his own lifelong need to prove himself. The story of the 5-foot-9 underdog-turned-All-Star was amazing on its own. This is another kind of drive. In his grief he appears to be losing himself in these games, as if fighting with all of his skills and heart to make sense of his despair, and to turn the senseless loss of his sister into a celebration of life.
The Wizards were up 110-104 with 2:43 remaining when in the span of 48 seconds Thomas flashed out for a 3-pointer and then kicked to Terry Rozier for a tying corner 3. The most crucial of Thomas’s 20 fourth-quarter points resulted from a jab step that created space for his 20-footer with 46.9 seconds to go, and then two free throws he made after zig-zagging into the paint with 14.4 left.
So now the bar has been raised for Wall as he returns to Washington for Games 3 and 4 at home. Having dominated most of the opening three quarters, Wall’s Wizards were on the verge of overcoming not only a 34-22 disparity in free throw attempts that infuriated them, but also a poor showing from Bradley Beal, who went 4-for-15 (1 for 9 from the arc) for 14 points and six turnovers.
Wall blocked a potential game-tying layup by Thomas with 27 seconds remaining in the fourth. But then both he and Beal missed jumpers in the final sequence of the fourth that could have earned Washington its first win here since 2013-14. "They made the shots that we missed,” Wall said.
The Wizards benefited from the fast recovery of power forward Markieff Morris, who after leaving the second quarter of Game 1 with a sprained ankle was able to complement Wall with 16 points and six rebounds on Tuesday -- including a key sequence that appeared to put Washington in control late in the fourth. Seven Wizards scored in double-figures, but Morris and Marcin Gortat (14 points and 10 rebounds) both fouled out in OT.
Can the Wizards match the teamwork of Boston? The cliché of teammates as family has never seemed more sincere among the Celtics in these hard-fought days. While Thomas was making all four of his shots for nine points plus an assist in OT, 6-foot-4 Marcus Smart was flying in for crucial rebounds and Avery Bradley (who made two locker room visits to deal with a right hip pointer) was stripping Wall for a breakaway dunk. Al Horford (15 points on nine shots to go with 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks), Jae Crowder (14 points on nine shots) and Kelly Olynyk (eight points on 3-for-3 shooting) were all efficient as the Celtics shot 51.1 percent.
This still looks very much like a series that could go six or seven games, as Beal figures to bounce back and the Wizards look forward to the next two games at home. But the wild card is always going to be Thomas, in his search for answers and meaning on this most public stage.
Early in the fourth quarter, after sinking a 3-pointer, he sprinted to the far corner of the court and into the edge of the fans to draw strength from them. They were standing and roaring and, for a moment, the smallest and strongest of the stars disappeared among them -- as only he can.
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