BOSTON – In the wake of tragedy, Isaiah Thomas somehow found the strength to persevere during Sunday night’s Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls.
One day after his 22-year-old sister Chyna was tragically killed in a one-car crash in their home state of Washington, Thomas suited up and led his Boston Celtics to the best of his ability, just like he always does.
Thomas poured in a game-high 33 points on 10-of-18 shooting, dished out six assists and corralled five rebounds. Despite the incredible effort, the Celtics narrowly fell, 106-102. However, as a team, they discovered great inner strength and perspective as they stood behind their courageous leader.
“It’s a difficult time for Isaiah and his family and for us as well,” Al Horford reflected after the game. “We wanted to come out and be able to win this game, but there are bigger things than just basketball.”
The hours leading up to the game were an emotional roller coaster for Boston’s All-Star point guard. Brad Stevens said Thomas was struggling during the team’s afternoon shootaround, and Jae Crowder, who is Thomas’ locker mate, said that he was very somber and subdued as he prepared himself to play.
Thomas had difficulty getting through warm-ups as well. At one point he had to step off the court and take a seat while he gathered his emotions. Avery Bradley noticed Thomas bury his head in the crook of his wrist, so he immediately went over to console his mourning teammate by draping his arm around Thomas’ shoulder in a brotherly fashion.
“Isaiah, to me, is family,” said Bradley. “We grew up in the same area. I know it’s tough for him. It says a lot about him (to be able to play through it). It says he’s a true competitor.
“I know tonight he was playing for his sister. He was playing for his family. We appreciate that as teammates.”
Because Bradley and the rest of the Celtics are so close to Thomas, they felt directly impacted by the tragedy as well. Prior to pregame introductions, Thomas’ teammates all bowed their heads in unison while a tribute to Chyna was displayed on the jumbotron. They then encircled him to show their love while he was introduced to a thunderous, supportive ovation from the TD Garden crowd.
“This was difficult, and I felt like our guys really dealt with it in the right way,” said Horford, who tallied 19 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the defeat. “Isaiah is the one that I felt like dealt with it best. We knew he was hurting. 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.”
Thomas, miraculously, was locked in from the opening tip. He scored 13 points during the opening nine minutes of the game and was riding the wave of the electric crowd. The Celtics were at their best when he was on the floor, proven by his team-high plus/minus rating of plus-12. They struggled to produce while he was on the sidelines, however, as they were outscored by 16 during the 10 minutes that he rested.
Jimmy Butler took over the game during the second half as he scored 22 of his team-high 30 points after the break. After the game, Butler tipped his hat to his friend and fellow All-Star on the opposing sideline.
“He’s a hell of a player, but that’s always tough to go through,” Butler said of Thomas’ perseverance. “It just goes to show the type of player and man he is to go out there and battle through what he was going through for his organization and team.”
Thomas did his best to rally his team, as he scored 12 points during the final six minutes of action, but it was not enough.
Still, Brad Stevens was impressed by the way his team maintained its composure under the circumstances.
“The perspective of it all hits you in a hard way,” said Stevens. “I couldn’t help but be inspired by his play.”
Thomas’ inspiring effort to step up in the face of adversity will be something that fuels the Celtics in the games to come. His teammates won’t forget his courage, and they will play each remaining minute of the Playoffs in his and his family’s honor.
“He is just an amazing basketball player and a better person,” said Bradley. “I’m happy with the way he played tonight, and we just need to continue to fight for him.”