There were moments in the beginning of this emotional game when it looked like Isaiah Thomas wasn’t going to make it through.
Nobody would’ve blamed Thomas if he excused himself from Game 1 of the playoffs Easter Sunday. His little sister, 22-year-old Chyna Thomas, had died in a horrific single-person car crash the day prior in Washington, and the diminutive Celtics point guard had his head buried in tears on the bench prior to the game on the bench. The crying continued during a pregame tribute to Chyna, with the 28-year-old’s eyes still glazed at tipoff.
Within 40 seconds, Thomas, a 91-percent free throw shooter, got to the stripe and badly missed his first opportunity. Way short.
You had to wonder whether Celtics coach Brad Stevens would pull his best player because he wasn’t mentally ready to lead a basketball team.
"I’m not feeling comfortable with him sitting on the sideline crying like that," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said on the broadcast. "That makes me uncomfortable because that tells me he’s not in shape to play. I don’t know how this night is going to turn out. But to be sitting on the sideline a few minutes before the game, crying, that makes me uncomfortable for him. That’s just not a good look, in my personal opinion."
Except Barkley underestimated Thomas. The point guard buried his second free throw, then connected on more shots, including a 30-foot 3-pointer less than four minutes into the game. He dropped a game-high 33 points in 38 minutes, all with the words ‘R.I.P. lil’ sis’ inscribed on his Nike’s.
An inspiring performance.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the top-seeded Celtics in a 106-102 loss to the Bulls in Game 1. Thomas had no help in the fourth quarter, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler countered with 30 points, and the likable Celtics lost homecourt advantage. It would be unfortunate if Thomas bows out in the opening round.
He was always the man to root for in these playoffs. Even before the tragedy involving his sister – and before we watched Sunday hoping Thomas achieved some measure of fulfillment amid his grieving – he was the tiny underdog who started his career as ‘Mr. Irrelevant,’ the final pick of the 2011 draft.
But this season he emerged as one of the league’s best players, a clutch wizard who averaged 29 points while leading Boston to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Knicks fans know him well for lamenting the way he tormented their team the last two seasons.
But now he’s the player we can all get behind.