BOSTON — Just when things couldn’t get any worse, the Boston Celtics lost their All-NBA second team star Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas could not make it back out of the locker room to start the second half in Game 2 Friday, missing the rest of the game with a right hip strain. Thomas originally aggravated the injury in Game 6 win Washington last Friday, Danny Ainge told The Vertical’s Chris Mannix.
The Celtics were not sure if Thomas could even play in Game 7 according to Mannix, which he fought through for a strong performance to send the Celtics to the conference finals.
But with a few minutes remaining in an already disastrous first half, Thomas stepped on Kevin Love’s foot and spent the next few minutes hobbling around the floor. He never saw the court again as the Celtics were pummeled 130-86 for their worst loss in the conference finals in franchise history. It was also their worst playoff loss in the Garden ever.
Thomas has been playing with this injury for awhile, as Danny Ainge told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. Thomas had tests on his hip after Game 6 and will have more Saturday, per Goodman.
When Brad Stevens hit the podium after the Game 2 loss, he elaborated on the situation.
“He's had a nagging hip injury. He aggravated it pretty significantly on Friday in Washington Game 6, went through a bunch of different testing on Saturday and Sunday, was able to play Monday, hasn't felt great either of the two days. But today I thought he looked much different in the first half. When we went back to the locker room, our training staff and doctors got with him.”
Thomas acknowledged after Game 7 that he had been playing through some nagging injuries, although this is fairly common for a player with his usage rate this deep into the postseason. Considering the Celtics were down by an NBA record 41 points at halftime, it is a reasonable assumption that his halftime removal was motivated by resting him for the rest of the game to be less sore ahead of Game 3 Sunday.
It certainly was not his call, according to Stevens.
“He was pretty despondent not to be able to play. I mean, that guy is a tough guy, and he plays through a lot. For him to have to sit is really hard.”
"I think for IT not to play, he'd have to have one of his legs cut off or something," Green said.
Thomas had just 2 points in 18 minutes, missing all six of his shots from the field. It was the fewest points he has scored in a game since going scoreless in two seconds playing for Sacramento on November 30, 2012.
Thomas has been tortured all series, with the Cavs defense honing in on him to clog the Celtics’ offensive flow. Their high blitzes have worked well to trap him, while their hard hedges on screens have forced the ball out of his hands early. Al Horford is supposed to be the antidote to this, but the Cavs are coordinating too well.
“We do have some great perimeter defenders that take the challenge,” LeBron James told CelticsBlog in his post-game press conference. “But we also have great third-line defense as well with our front line, which communicates pick-and-roll coverages or pin-down coverages or whatever coverages and allow the guards to get up into the ball or do what they need to do to be successful versus their guards.”
With Thomas hobbled and then gone for Boston, it kills more than just their offensive system. It hurts their spirit.
"Anytime we don't have Isaiah on the court is obviously a minus for us," said Green. "You know, we need him. Just his presence, his way to compete is contagious. We need him on the floor at all times. Even if he's not on the floor, we've got to have the next-man-up mentality, which we've had for the most part all season. We just didn't have it today."
Even though the Celtics were humiliated with Thomas both on and off the floor Friday, they are doing their best to motivate each other to fight back against the tallest of odds.
“We’re down,” Horford said. “But our group is staying together. That’s the most encouraging thing for me. We have a young group. As hard as it was – because it was tough tonight, it was very hard – I saw a group of guys who were sticking together.”
The Celtics need to reconcile their identity as a swift, finnesse team to meet the reality of Cleveland’s superior ferocity. CelticsBlog asked Horford what Boston has to do in Game 3 to stay true to their identity while handling the Cavs physicality.
“That's a good question. I think we just need to go out there and play. There's no magic formula. We need to just go out there and play, help each other on defense.”
The Celtics are fighting a war of attrition, as much against their own poor shooting as Cleveland’s dominance on both ends. Boston can take advantage of some defensive weak spots by working the corners in their weak-side motion offense. But with open shots finding comfort in clanking off the rim, their inability to keep up with Cleveland’s offense sends them in a self-defeating spiral of frustration.
“I'm sure that shots will fall on Sunday. They didn't tonight,” Horford said to CelticsBlog. “We had some good looks, then we started to kind of get discouraged. The biggest thing for us is defensively, do what we do.
“We need to be way better. We haven't played to our potential I feel like the first two games. Just look forward to Sunday.”