It was a nightmare scenario that has played out countless times through the 2016-17 Celtics campaign. They had executed perfectly, got an exorbitant amount of production out of Gerald Green and en route to a 20-point lead looked in full control of a game they had to win. Then it all fell apart. A 0-3 hole is an impossible comeback, and 1-3 is close barring a LeBron James on your roster.
Instead Celtics-Bulls is going back to Boston tied up at 2-2. Marcus Smart was sensational in the win, Al Horford played even better than his max contract with a spice of aggression layered on his monstrous dunks, but none of that would have mattered if it wasn’t for the herculean workload Thomas assumed in the 3rd quarter.
When the dust settled on the win, Thomas was finally able to speak his mind in more ways than one. The win, marked by his 33 points, seven assists and four rebounds, spoke volumes in itself. His clash with Michael Carter-Williams yelled loud and clear that MCW wasn’t going to stop him. His press conference revealed what we had all inferred—that basketball has been his sanctuary from the horrors of real life that he is currently faced with. But he also got to have his superstar moment behind the mic.
“Not one man can guard me,” he said.
If none of those other things were screams of the impact of a 5’9” superstar on this team, that should have been a blast from a megaphone. There does not exist one man who can stop Thomas. Zero.
The Celtics were in legitimate trouble in the third quarter. After establishing their style of play—small, fast and versatile on the game—Chicago ripped it right back to the way they want it played: slow, methodical and big.
Robin Lopez’s tip-ins were back, as were the deliberate drives by Jimmy Butler that amassed an extraordinary 19 points from the free throw line alone. Isaiah Canaan thrived at point guard (+11) playing off of the ball, getting in the lane defensively and knocking down open shots. After he stole the ball from Marcus Smart, triggering a NBA “brawl,” it was a 33-18 run for the Bulls.
Boston’s adjustment meant little with the lead gone. A margin that seemed insurmountable proved not to be once again, and suddenly this team’s legitimacy going back to trade deadline 2015 was in question. Until a little guy they traded for on that day stepped onto the court.
The Little Guy.
Thomas had his playoff moment. Even after spectacular scoring feats against Atlanta last year and some excellent facilitating action early in this series, this was the essence of I.T.
Within seconds he had four straight points charging by Chicago’s big men at full speed as high screens pulled them out to the perimeter. He utilized Horford’s sharp cuts to continue to distribute as the defense woke up to him again. He barreled through the front line of Chicago around the rim to score. He rushed out in transition ahead of everybody to follow Horford’s miraculous block on Butler. He even sharpened his distribution game once again: a nice swing to Avery Bradley on the drive that turned into a missed open three, a bounce pass through traffic to Kelly Olynyk for an easy two, an acrobatic pass underneath to Olynyk as he nearly lost the ball flying by Carter-Williams.
It was a load as thick as that paragraph within the flash of an eye. If you took a long enough bathroom break in the final minutes of the third quarter you missed a deadlocked game become one solidified in Boston’s favor. The 12-0 run gave the Celts the keys to control the fourth quarter and now go home having overcome a series deficit only three teams have ever come back to win from.
Between the jawing with Carter-Williams in the aftermath, whatever he may have said after embarrassing him on national TV, and the saltiness of coach Fred Hoiberg at the podium, it was a night that should never be forgotten.
After losing a second straight game at home as Boston emphasized their own style to run away from Chicago’s strengths, Hoiberg went to the extreme to discredit Thomas’ greatest night as a Celtic:
Full text of Fred Hoiberg’s comments about the officiating tonight as it relates to Isaiah Thomas’ carrying: pic.twitter.com/OGpXNpHXz4— Sean Highkin (@highkin) April 24, 2017
That’s all Hoiberg could do after getting bamboozled by Thomas. Pull an excuse out of thin air. It’s not a secret any more—I.T. over the course of two full seasons has firmly established himself as one of the most efficient and quick-hitting scorers in basketball. For some reason even basketball minds like him still can’t take it for what it is.
Hoiberg had watched as his team had gotten back to their full stride, slowing the game down and completing everything they needed to do in order to beat Boston the same way they did in games one and two. But it didn’t happen.
Thomas had a night so spectacular, so overwhelming that the flow of the game hit a brick wall. Momentum never shifted like it should have. All the greats have done it, the unthinkable. Pulling an unexpected outcome out of a hat, so that there has to be some tricky stuff going on behind the scenes such as the referees allowing him to travel.
But that’s the amazing part. There’s no secret. There’s no trick at play here. Thomas has put in so much work to give himself every extra step on defenders: the three-point touch to make his hesitation move around the arc almost unguardable as well as the slick handles to keep his defenders even more off-balance. If there was a mystery here, it could easily be solved. Thomas even stepped up his notoriously deficient defensive game in the win tonight. He grabbed something Chicago thought they had full control of.
All of it days after attending the funeral of his sister. As Brad Stevens said, he’s given us everything already, now he’s just doing more.
Thomas didn’t even have to respond to Hoiberg’s ridiculous criticism. The performance did itself justice. But he earned the right to:
"That's not the reason I'm an impossible cover."