BOSTON – It was as if two different games had been played.
After No. 8 Chicago had upset the top-seeded Celtics 106-102 on Easter Sunday, the Bulls were asked a variety of routine basketball questions. How had they generated their 20 offensive rebounds? What had enabled Jimmy Butler (30 points overall) to dominate the final quarter?
The questions asked of the Celtics came from an entirely different point of view. The East’s top seed had opened the postseason with a loss, and yet coach Brad Stevens was being asked if he was proud of his players, and of his All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas in particular.
“The perspective of it all hits you in a hard way,” said Stevens. “I’m not only proud of the effort but the way they supported him. I couldn’t help but be inspired by his play.”
Chyna Thomas, the 22-year-old sister of Isaiah Thomas, died early Saturday morning in a one-car collision in Washington state, where she and her brother had grown up. Her car had veered gradually off the highway before vaulting a barrier and crashing into a signpost.
Isaiah Thomas, who learned of his younger sister’s death on Saturday after practice, scored 33 points in 38 minutes on Sunday.
“He was incredible,” said Stevens. “He’s an amazing, amazing player, amazing person, and days won’t get easier for him. But he somehow plays like that.”
It is preposterous to characterize the Celtics’ effort in terms normally associated with losing a basketball game. Thomas was seen crying on the team bench in the late afternoon Sunday as teammate Avery Bradley sat with his arm around him. Hours later Thomas was making 10 of 18 shots while generating six assists and five rebounds.
“It says a lot about him,” said Bradley (14 points), who joined with Al Horford (19) to try to complement Thomas. ”I know tonight he was playing for his sister. He was playing for his family. We appreciate that as teammates. He is just an amazing basketball player and a better person, so I’m happy with the way he played tonight, and we just need to continue to fight for him.”
Stevens had told Thomas it was up to him to make a decision on his playing status. If he wanted to play in Game 1, then he should play. If at any time he decided otherwise, then that would be fine too.
“One of the things I’ve learned, having been through situations in the past, is that there’s really no right or wrong answer,” Stevens said less than two hours before the game. “It’s whatever is right for him. He’s really hurting.”
Then there was the question of coaching his team to focus on the game.
“I don’t think there’s any easy answer to that,” Stevens said. “The game will play itself out the way it plays itself out. Our guys have spent all week preparing really hard and are really excited to get a chance to play in the playoffs. And, obviously, more important things happen in life. I don’t think my job is necessarily to separate the two. My job is to be there with the rest of the guys to support Isaiah.”
There was no separating anything. Before the introductions, a moment of silence was held. In memory of Chyna Thomas read the script on the scoreboard screens. The arena was as quiet as a church on this holy day.
No sooner had the moment ended than someone was yelling something about loving Isaiah, and then that voice was overwhelmed by thousands more. When Thomas was introduced it was as if all of the noise had been bottled up and the bottle had been shaken and released 18,000 times over.
Thomas wiped tears from his cheek shortly before the game, and then he scored 13 points in the opening quarter. He was carried by his own established routine of excellence, which has enabled a 5-9 point guard who was the No. 60 pick of the 2011 NBA draft to become a two-time All-Star who averaged 28.9 ppg this season. His friends and family had embraced Thomas and consoled him quietly and emotionally from their hearts, and now his fans were consoling the league’s most beloved underdog loudly and emotionally from their hearts. The inspiring basketball and the unspeakable sadness were all swirled together.
“Whatever he needs to do, he needs to do, and we’ll help in any way. If he needs to and wants to stay here, then we’ll be here surrounding him. And if he wants to go to Seattle, then he should go to Seattle. It’s his call, and should be.”
Somehow, in spite of the larger reality, Thomas made a positive 12-point impact on his team when he was in the game, which is to say that the Celtics were outscored by 16 points to Chicago when Thomas was on the bench. His final absence coincided with the emergence of Butler, the Bulls’ All-Star who scored 23 points in his final 10:10 – a run that began in the final 88 seconds of the third quarter while Thomas was gathering himself for the fourth.
“We’ve got to be great in those eight to 10 minutes that he doesn’t play,” acknowledged Stevens.
What lays ahead for Thomas? The two answers to that question are twisted together as well. For Thomas there will be questions that cannot be answered and pain that defies the compassion and concern he feels from all who care for him. For the Celtics, there will be Game 2 on Tuesday.
“Whatever he needs to do, he needs to do, and we’ll help in any way,” said Stevens. “If he needs to and wants to stay here, then we’ll be here surrounding him. And if he wants to go to Seattle, then he should go to Seattle. It’s his call, and should be.”
There will be no deadline to his scheduling.
“Not going to ask him, or make him make those decisions,” Stevens said. “Those have got to come on his own time, and then we’ll adjust accordingly.”
“We’re never going to make excuses,” said Horford. “But this is hard. This was difficult, and I felt like our guys really dealt with it in the right way. Isaiah is the one that I felt like dealt with it best. We knew he was hurting, it’s not easy, and we have a lot of respect for him that he was able to come out. It’s not an easy task, but he didn’t make excuses and we didn’t either. We really tried to come out here and focus on the game.”
And then they realized, as they embraced their teammate who had done everything he could to win it, that losing this game was not the end of the world.
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