UPDATE 2:00 PM: Thomas will play in Games 2 and 3, per Brad Stevens.
BOSTON — Isaiah Thomas staggered through the day with a quiet despondency. His teammates could barely reach him, showing him love and support as much as his numbed mind could receive. He warmed up alone and hardly uttered a word all night.
He was 24 hours removed from the tragic passing of his sister Chyna in a single-car accident near their hometown of Tacoma, Washington. He planned to play, but nobody was certain it would happen until they actually saw him on the floor with the ball in the air.
As the Celtics emerged from the tunnel for their pre-game warmup, Thomas led the charge. As they stood in the darkness, under the flickering red and blue lights emanating from glowing wristbands on each fan’s wrist as the national anthem was belted from a key higher than the heavens, his teammates gave him pats on the back.
“You wanted to talk to him, but you really can’t talk to him because he’s not talkative right now,” Jae Crowder said. “He’s just fighting through some adversity.”
In the wake of tragedy, corralling erratic waves of emotion is one of the greatest challenges. So a few hours on the basketball court, relying on muscle memory, seems like an escape to stability and familiarity. The rumbles and roars from the stands as he made his entrance were a shot of adrenaline for everyone in the confines of the Garden.
He operated on the floor completely controlled by that muscle memory, without a facial expression in sight. He drove the lane every time he got the ball in the first five possessions, while playing active defense and attacking the glass. He knew he would only have the emotional and physical energy to assert himself for limited times in this game, and he wanted to build off his momentum early.
He had a quiet second and third quarter, but the King in the Fourth was just waiting for his chance. Thomas scored 12 in the final stanza, coming alive as the Celtics made an improbable comeback in the final minute that fell just short.
When he hit a trademark hook to make it a 104-102 game with 7.5 seconds left, he immediately sprung into defensive mode, locked into the eyes of an inbounding Rajon Rondo. As soon as the timeout was called, his stare went blank and he slowly marched to the bench. Jimmy Butler would hit both free throws after Marcus Smart nearly stole another inbounds.
Bulls 106, Celtics 102. Thomas 33.
He was quiet, insular and functioning on autopilot. Game one was a testimony to his greatness, to see the pocket gladiator have enough incredible skill and preparation to stumble into a game and be its leading scorer.
“He was incredible. He’s an amazing, amazing player. Amazing person,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Days won’t get easier for him, but he somehow plays like that.”
Stevens spent Saturday evening by Thomas’ side as players from the organization and around the league reached out to send their thoughts and prayers. The coach has worked for years to foster a familial bond in his locker room, melding a group of individuals with their own backstories and goals into a brotherhood.
“Isaiah, is, to me, he’s family,” Avery Bradley said. “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.
Bradley was there to help wipe the tears away when Thomas took a break from pre-game warmups to cry on the bench. Walking over to his friend wearing the words “Chyna I love you” on his sneakers, he threw his arm over Thomas’ shoulder. It was one of the moments of support Thomas needed to get to the starting gate and through the night.
“He is just an amazing basketball player and a better person,” Bradley said. “So I’m happy with the way he played tonight and we just need to continue to fight for him.”
Thomas declined to speak with the media after the game, understandably. His status for game two is up in the air as he works out a plan to fly back to Seattle to attend his sister’s funeral.
There is no doubt that the Celtics offense, which already struggles to produce with Thomas on the bench, would be in an emergency scenario without him. That’s a challenge they will face together, as the entire organization implored Thomas to do what's best for his family.
“Whatever he needs to do, he needs to do, and we’ll help in any way,” Stevens said. “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.”
His team came up short, but Thomas emerged a champion of spirit and triumph. He found an escape for a few hours on Easter Sunday, and that’s more than anyone could hope for him in this time of pain. Thomas has earned respect from his peers for years, but tonight he showed a different type of mental fortitude.
“He’s a hell of a player, but that’s always tough to go through. I wish him the best and his family,” Jimmy Butler said. “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.”
It was the same refrain Gerald Green described through tears before the game, dedicating his playoffs to his close friend. It was apparent Sunday that Thomas is not only a leader on his team, but a good friend to all.
“He’s always been a fighter, never a quitter,” Marcus Smart said. “We’re a family, so we’re hurting just like he’s hurting. It’s IT. We love him for that.”
Easter Sunday was a day to celebrate with family for many across the country. For Thomas, he was surrounded by the love of his Boston family in the toughest of times.
For a proud man with a chip on his shoulder, he can take solace and pride in what he achieved Sunday. For his team, for himself.