BOSTON — For 2 1/2 hours, Isaiah Thomas could do what comes naturally. His heart, heavy for the better part of a day, became just another organ, powering his forays up and down 94 feet of hardwood at TD Garden. His brain, addled with more than 24 hours of remembrance and tragedy, could return to familiar, comfortable territory — the mechanics of the playbook, the cool impassiveness of Xs and Os. Thomas could just play basketball.
And he did. Thomas did what he could to push the Celtics the way he has all season. He scored, finishing with 33 points. He tried to push the tempo, and wound up with six rebounds and five assists. He came on late in the game, with 12 points in the final quarter even as he was being blanketed at times by long-armed ace defender Jimmy Butler.
But the Celtics were lacking rhythm and offensive cohesion for most of their postseason opener against the Bulls, and Chicago had the defense and rebounding to stifle Thomas and the top-seeded Celtics. The Bulls won 106-102.
For Thomas, the day was bigger than basketball, bigger than the postseason. Early Saturday, his 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, died in a car accident on Interstate 5 in Washington state. But still, Thomas suited up for the Celtics on Sunday and, individually, he did not disappoint. More telling, the Celtics floundered without him on the floor — Thomas was plus-12 for the game.
“It’s a difficult time for Isaiah and his family, and for us as well,” forward Al Horford said. “We wanted to come out and be able to win this game, because there are bigger things than just basketball. For us, we are not taking it for granted, and we need to really pull through at this time. I feel like this will make us stronger, and we are going to be there to support Isaiah.”
That Thomas played at all was remarkable. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Thomas was“struggling,” but that the decision was left to Thomas. “As he goes through it,” Stevens said before the game, “if he feels the need to not (play), whatever he wants. One of the things I’ve learned having been through situations in the past, there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever is right for him.”
Stevens didn’t change that outlook after the game. He said the team would do whatever Thomas needed, and would free him to return home should he choose to do so. Thomas declined to speak with the media after the game.
It was an obviously difficult period for Thomas. Throughout the day, he was heaped with attention, his private grief spilling into public view. When Thomas took the court, his green shoes were marked with“Chyna,” “I love you,” “RIP Lil sis,” and “4-15-17,” the date of her death.
Cameras captured Thomas in pregame shootaround, seated alone on the bench with his head down in his hand before being consoled by longtime friend Avery Bradley. The lenses zoomed in on him again during the pregame moment of silence in his sister’s honor, even as he was obviously wrestling with sadness before taking the court. They were there again when he solemnly walked onto the floor during introductions.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Butler said. “But that’s always tough to go through. I wish him the best, but he just showed the type of player, the type of man, the type of person he is, to go out there and battle, even with what he was going through, for his organization and his team.”
During the game itself, Thomas and the Celtics had difficulty maintaining consistency on offense, and tight defense on both sides (Boston shot 43.0 percent, Chicago shot 42.9 percent) led to heightened emotions. Neither team led by more than five points in the first three quarters, and the tension of the game was amplified by the fact thatopposite Thomaswas former Celtics hero point guard Rajon Rondo, who drew round jeering for much of the game.
Thomas was whistled for a technical foul with 6:33 to play in the fourth quarter after he argued being called for a kicked ball on a drive to the basket against Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio. On the following possession, during a jump ball on Chicago’s end, Bradley slapped at Butler’s hand, initiating a jaw-flapping standoff between the two, who were separated by officials.
With 5:33 to play in the game, Thomas was sent to the line thanks to a Rondo foul on a 3-point attempt. It was the game’s most poignant moment — the entire crowd was nearly silent as Thomas hoisted his first attempt. He made all three, giving the Celtics an 88-87 lead. But they would not hold it. Chicago scored the next eight points to seize control of the game.
In the final seconds, it was Thomas trying to bring the Celtics back, making a layup off a drive with 7.5 seconds to play, cutting the deficit to two points. But Thomas was not fist-pumping, not imploring a late rally despite the glimmer of hope. Instead, his upper lip stiffened. He walked, stoic and silent, toward the bench.
Who could blame him? On the floor, the Celtics were looking at a difficult loss, and Butler soon made two game-sealing free throws. As time wound down, Thomas knew he was just seconds away from being plunged back into reality. This game would be over, and Thomas again would be surrounded by a much more significant loss off the floor.