Inside Isaiah Thomas' heartbreaking playoff experience

BOSTON – The tears streamed down Isaiah Thomas’ face, and you wondered: Could I do it? Could I play? Two days ago Thomas was preparing for a career-defining postseason, the unquestioned star of the NBA’s most storied franchise. A day later, his world caved in: Thomas’ 22-year old sister, Chyna, was killed when her Toyota Camry veered off a highway in Federal Way, Wash., on Saturday morning, striking a cement barrier and a large signpost.

Thomas learned of Chyna’s death on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday night, he was in the Celtics’ starting lineup, scoring 33 points in a 106-102 loss to the Bulls in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. In a way it wasn’t surprising. The mental toughness needed to be Isaiah Thomas – the 5-foot-9 underdog, the lightly recruited college star, the 60th pick in 2011 who earned two straight All-Star nods – is enormous. Boston told Thomas: It’s your call. His decision? Go through the walk-through in the afternoon and lead his top-seeded team onto the floor that night, with “Chyna” written by his sneaker laces and “RIP LiL SiS” etched by the sole.

“He was incredible,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s an amazing, amazing player. [An] amazing person. Days won’t get easier for him, but he somehow plays like that.”

It was a remarkably difficult and emotional day for Isaiah Thomas. (AP)
It was a remarkably difficult and emotional day for Isaiah Thomas. (AP)

Yet in a way it was surprising, because can you imagine? Your baby sister, killed in a tragic accident that offered few answers. After the walk-through, Thomas tossed up a few shots before settling into a sideline seat. He buried his head in his arm and wept. Avery Bradley, who grew up in the same Tacoma, Wash., area as Thomas, whose dream of playing in the NBA began on the same courts Thomas’ did, draped an arm over his shoulder. The TNT cameras caught the throat-choking moment, broadcasting it all over the world.

Said Bradley, “Isaiah is, to me, he’s family.”

What do you say? Boston battled with this one. The Celtics are a tight-knit team. The core of it – Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart – have powered a rapid rebuild, transforming a 25-win team in 2014 into a conference-best 53-win group this season. In shock, Thomas has retreated into himself. He warmed up alone before the game. Smart tapped him on the chest. Bradley pulled him in for a hug. They searched for words to ease the indescribable pain. They found none.

Said Crowder, “You want to talk to him, but you can’t really talk to him because he’s not talkative right now.”

Stevens did. The bond between Stevens and Thomas is ironclad. Stevens hasn’t just coached Thomas – he’s empowered him. When most of the NBA saw a sixth man, Stevens saw a starter, a franchise player. He built the Celtics’ offense around Thomas’ talent. He styled a system that has helped Thomas become an MVP candidate.

So there was Stevens on Saturday night, with Thomas, a shoulder, if he needed it, for him to cry on. There was nothing he could say. He knew that. Just that if Thomas needed something, Stevens, and everyone else, would be there to provide it. “Everybody reached out,” Stevens said. “Isaiah is a great teammate. He’s a great husband. He’s a great father. He’s a great son and brother. Ultimately, we just all tried to do our part and let him know we were thinking about him. Anything we could all do to help, we do. This particular situation with his family takes precedent [over] everything else going on. And we’re here for him.”

The Celtics were there for him. Boston was, too. This city embraces its sports stars. Reveres them. When a pregame moment of silence ended, shouts of “We love you, I.T.!” echoed from the rafters. A thunderous ovation greeted him during player introductions; chants of “M-V-P!” filled the building on his first trip to the free-throw line. Blue-collar players are well received in Boston; Thomas has been taken in by the city as one of its own.

Boston lost, and make no mistake: Its season is now in peril. The Bulls clobbered the Celtics on the glass, a season-long problem with no easily discernable solution. Chicago’s Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor, and Boston continues to struggle to manufacture offense with Thomas off the floor. Thomas’ situation moving forward is fluid, and the team has no problem with it staying that way.

“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 it should be. I told him [I’m] not going to ask him or make him make those decisions. Those have got to come on his own time, and then we’ll adjust accordingly.”

There will be a time to talk basketball, and plenty of it. The Celtics have dreams of a trip to the conference finals, and they need Thomas to do it. But to see Thomas during warmups on Sunday, the tears welling in his eyes, the searing pain on his face, basketball never felt less important.

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