BOSTON — With even more weight on his shoulders than ever, Isaiah Thomas mustered the courage to lead the Celtics in their playoff opener. 24 hours after learning of his sister Chyna’s tragic death, Thomas was the the focus of every eye in the NBA. But Jimmy Butler’s late dominance pushed the Chicago Bulls to a 106-102 win.
“The fact that he’s here shows what kind of man he is,” Gerald Green said through tears before the game.
Thomas has built an infallible reputation of competitiveness and confidence, so his presence at the Garden on Easter Sunday seemed more inevitable than surprising.
The big shock came when Thomas opened up the game attacking the rim, getting to the line twice in the first four possessions. When he buried a three for his first field goal of the game, the arena erupted like he had just won the game.
The little guy with the big heart drains one from DEEP. pic.twitter.com/bTAI6Xvpf1— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 16, 2017
Thomas scored 13 points (3/5 from deep) in the opening quarter in a performance only one Little Guy saw coming. Thomas was locked in at both ends, defending Rajon Rondo with intensity and crashing the boards as best as he could.
The Celtics nearly completed an epic comeback in the closing minutes, as Thomas scored five points over a seven-second span to bring it to 104-102 with seven seconds left. Thomas had buried a three, then Avery Bradley forced a turnover on the inbound that resulted in an infinitely long review before giving the Celtics the ball back.
But Jimmy Butler pulled off a textbook box out on the Bulls’ inbound and outran the Celtics roster to burn clock and draw the foul. He buried both free throws to put the Bulls up 106-102. Butler scored 23 of his 30 points in the final 14 minutes of play.
As IT went quiet in the second quarter, Al Horford took on the scoring responsibilities, finishing with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists. But he didn’t grab a single rebound in the final 17:32 of the game. Robin Lopez continued the tradition of physical centers abusing Horford underneath, pulling in 11 rebounds, 8 of them on offense.
The Bulls grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in the end, just the 12th time the Celtics have surrendered that many in Basketball Reference’s database going back to 1984.
The Celtics kept Jimmy Butler contained until the late third quarter, when he went on a tear that threw momentum back in the Bulls’ favor. He scored 10 points over a two-minute span at the end of the third and early fourth, finishing with 28 points and nine rebounds.
Butler and Robin Lopez are extremely effective working together off-ball to free Butler for good looks. It took them a few quarters to figure it out, but by the late third, they were finally picking off Celtics defenders.
“That’s a thing we’re constantly talking about,” Lopez said. “Obviously Boston, they’ve got lot of great defensive players on their team. So I knew we had to focus, especially myself, on going there and dealing with defenders. Jimmy, D Wade, they all did a great job of setting me up.”
Butler’s biggest play came with a minute and a half left, when he rejected an Isaiah Thomas reverse off Thomas. The Bulls came down the other way to set up a wide open Portis jumper and open up a 101-92 lead with 1:18 left. The All-Star starter hit clutch free throws down the stretch to keep the Celtics just out of reach until the end.
Brad Stevens was impressed but not surprised with Butler’s firestorm in the end. Stevens has been talking for days about how effectively Lopez and Butler work together to get Jimmy good looks, something that can only be contained for so long.
“They just put him in a variety of different positions that put you in a. tough spot to maintain your matchup,” Stevens said. “Then he got going making some tough contested shots. So that’s one of the things about it. It’s one of the reasons why you can’t not rebound for a full game, because he’s going to get on a roll at some point.
“Now hopefully you can break that rhythm and make it as tough as possible, but he’s not going to miss shots all game.”
But the Bulls truly won this game on the interior, beating the Celtics 53-36 on the glass. Bobby Portis had one of the most complete performances of his young career, burying deep shots en route to 19 points, nine rebounds, and smacking a pair of crucial blocks.
After missing their first 11 three-point attempts, the Bulls finished 8-for-14. The Celtics shot 14-for-38 from deep on the evening.
Paying Respects to Isaiah
There was an outpour of love and respect from both teams before and after the game for Isaiah Thomas. Stevens indicated in his post-game press conference that Thomas may fly out to his sister Chyna’s funeral and therefore his status for Game 2 is unknown.
Here are some of the thoughts shared on his performance and his tragedy:
“He was incredible. He’s an amazing, amazing player. Amazing person. And days won’t get easier for him, but he somehow plays like that.” - Brad Stevens
“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. I told him that it’s got to be – not going to ask him, or make him make those decisions. Those’ve got to come on his own time, and then we’ll adjust accordingly.” - Stevens
“Yeah, I mean, listen, the perspective of it all hits you in a hard way. I was, I’m not only proud of the effort but the way they supported him. You know, again, I couldn’t help but be inspired by his play.” - Stevens
“It says a lot. Isaiah, is, to me, he’s family. We grew up in the same area,. I know it’s tough for him. It says a lot about him. 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. 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.” - Avery Bradley
“It’s a difficult time for Isaiah and his family and for us as well. We wanted to come out and be able to win this game, but there are bigger things than just basketball.” - Al Horford
“It’s kind of weird because you don’t want to hear any of the same old stuff, so many people saying stuff to him. He wasn’t talkative. He wasn’t that talkative today. So we just tried to give him his space.” - Jae Crowder
“I’m his locker mate on the road and here. So it was just kind of off today, you know? You feel for him a little bit but I definitely felt the awkwardness of the whole group, and just trying to feel for him, and play, and have all type of emotions all at once. So it’s a tough day for us but we’ll bounce back.” - Crowder
“I mean, he scored the ball well. It was really emotional at the start. But it was – I think it just speaks to who he is as a person and how he comes out here and just fights each and every night, even when adversity is against him. My hats off to him. We just should have gotten that win for him.” - Crowder
“Like I said, it was a little awkward for us. But we tried to put that behind us and fight for him. But it was a little off. Because you wanted to talk to him, but you really can’t talk to him because he’s not talkative right now. He’s just fighting through some adversity. And that’s understandable.” - Crowder
“It says a lot. That’s Isaiah. He’s always been like that. He’s always been a fighter, never a quitter. Like I said, we’re a family, so we’re hurting just like he’s hurting. IT’s IT. We love him for that.” - Marcus Smart
“Our players a lot of them have relationships with Isaiah. I kind of let them do their own thing. It’s a horrible tragedy and I said before the game and speaking on behalf of our organization. Its just a really tough situation he is going through.” - Fred Hoiberg
“He’s a hell of a player, but that’s always tough to go through. I wish him the best and his family. 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.” - Jimmy Butler