Thomas poured in 53 points -- 29 of which came in the fourth quarter and overtime -- as Boston posted a 129-119 victory at TD Garden to take a 2-0 lead in an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
"Today's my sister's birthday. She would have been 23 today," Thomas said as his emotions swelled at his postgame news conference. "So the least I can do is go out there and play for her."
Thomas immediately stared down at the table in front of him and then shielded his eyes while trying to blink back tears. The next question was posed to teammate Al Horford, sitting next to him on the podium, and gave Thomas an opportunity to compose himself.
Thomas later admitted that, in the hours before tipoff of Game 2, he wasn't sure he had the energy to push through a tough day.
"It just wasn't a good day for me with it being my sister's birthday, me being in the hospital for three or four hours today," said Thomas, who underwent oral surgery Monday to fix the tooth he lost in Sunday's Game 1 victory, then went to the hospital again on Tuesday to reduce the swelling that occurred around his mouth.
"I just didn't have the energy. But once I got around the guys, got to the arena, I felt like I could go. And I told [coach Brad Stevens] I could. There was no way I couldn't play on [Chyna's] birthday. I wanted to win for her. I wanted to play well for her."
Chyna Thomas was killed in a single-vehicle accident on April 15, a day before the Celtics' playoff opener. On Saturday, Thomas utilized a small break in the playoff schedule to fly home to Tacoma, Washington, to attend her funeral.
As part of Thomas' eulogy that day, he noted how he "wanted to give up and quit" after learning of his sister's death. He said he realized that "quitting isn't an option. That's the easy way out. I will keep going for my sister."
Thomas arrived back in Boston at 4 a.m. Sunday morning and was at the arena by 10 a.m. for the Celtics' pregame walk-through. Thomas scored 33 points in Boston's Game 1 victory.
But what he did Tuesday might have been even more remarkable.
Equipped with a custom mouthguard to keep his surgically repaired teeth in place, Thomas spent much of the game touching his mouth worried that a few hard spills to the ground might have dislodged his repaired teeth.
Boston rallied from double-digit deficits in both halves, but it was Thomas who carried the Celtics offensively over the final 17 minutes of play.
His 50th point of the night came on a fadeaway jumper in which he got fouled and knocked to the ground in a three-point game. A crowd on edge for much of the night roared in delight as Thomas would not let this game get away.
Thomas finished with the second-highest postseason point total in franchise history, one point shy of John Havlicek's record from 1973.
Thomas' teammates marveled not only at the way he played through another highly emotional day, but his scoring output, too.
"He had it going for sure," Jae Crowder said. "[The Wizards] had no answer for him. He was just getting the ball, he was passing, he was able to attack and get to the free throw line at a high clip and just be aggressive."
During an on-court interview with TNT, Thomas fought his emotions while trying to detail where he found the energy to perform as he did.
"It's my sister. It's her birthday today," Thomas told TNT. "Happy birthday. She would have been 23 today. Everything I do is for her. And she's watching over me, so that's all her."
Asked where he finds the strength, Thomas told TNT: "My family, my friends -- they just tell me to keep going. My sister wouldn't want me to stop. The only thing about it is, once I leave this gym, I hit reality and she's not here. So that's the tough part. But when I'm in this arena, I can lock in, and I know everything I do is for her."
Against the Wizards, Thomas shot 18-of-33 from the floor, including 5-for-12 from beyond the arc. He also grabbed four rebounds and had four assists.
The point guard is the only Celtics player to have a 50-point game in both the regular season and the playoffs during the same season.
"He was not feeling good and was having a tough day," Stevens said after the game. "I thought he was really going to have to gut this one out. He not only guts it out, he ends up with 50."
Stevens noted how Thomas had endured two long days of dental work just to fix the injuries from Sunday's game.
"The tooth that was knocked out was not the only one that was affected, so he had some other issues there," Stevens said. "So he was in getting oral surgery [Monday]. A few hours after practice ended, he came by the office for a minute but was still ... I don't know if he went back to the dentist's today or went to the hospital today just to work on it some more, but he's continued to have some work on it."
Said Thomas: "[Monday] was a long six hours. Then even today I had to go back four or five hours today. And I can't say enough about the shock doctor who made my mouthguard, Dr. [John] Meola and [team physician] Dr. [Brian] McKeon. Today my mouth was so numb, I mean so swollen, this morning I had to go back to the hospital just to get a few meds to get the swelling down because I could barely talk.
"But I know once game time came, my guys would get me going and get me the energy to go out there and try to win a game."
Holy Shit, Isaiah Thomas
The Wizards tried everything against Isaiah Thomas tonight. They threw taller defenders at him, they tried trapping him on pick-and-rolls, they tried switching on him, they tried hitting him. Nothing worked. The puny Celtics star got into the best point guard duel of the playoffs with John Wall and came out on the other side the victor, scoring 53 points in 45 minutes and leading the Celtics to a resounding 129-119 overtime victory.
Early on, it seemed as if tonight would be Wall’s night. The Wizards superstar went for 19 points and six assists in the first quarter, and his team leapt out to a 42-point first quarter. Bradley Beal looked dazed and out of things for the duration, but the Wizards marched on unperturbed thanks to Wall’s ceaseless shot creating and a gutsy performance from the hobbled Markieff Morris. Wall’s electron-like speed is well-known at this point, and the Celtics feared his sudden drives so much that they gave up acres of space anytime he had any sort of positive momentum. So he picked them apart, scoring 40 and dishing out 13 assists. Wall is also a spectacular athlete, and he created several transition opportunities with his three steals and three blocks.
While Wall was getting most of his buckets in the first half, Isaiah Thomas was lurking. He came alive in the fourth quarter, as he tends to, scoring 29 in the fourth and overtime. While the Wizards looked increasingly gassed and frantic as the game drew on, Thomas only looked more relaxed. He’d get Morris or Marcin Gortat switched onto him and easily claim whatever shot he wanted. Concerns that Thomas is too short to be effective in the playoffs now seem completely overblown. Watch him slither through endless pick-and-rolls, hitting floaters, layups, and open teammates.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas never ceases to amaze
BOSTON -- There was a stretch of games during the regular season in which Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas so routinely produced spectacular performances that coach Brad Stevens said it was no longer possible for him to be amazed by anything Thomas did.
Stevens would be the first to admit now that he was wrong.
Because what Thomas has done the past two weeks is so far beyond comprehension, it has left Stevens and Thomas' teammates unable to find the words to properly describe what they are witnessing. Al Horford went with "unbelievable"; Stevens has suggested "unfathomable" and "unreal." None of those seem strong enough to properly describe the way Thomas has persevered in the face of impossible grief after the death of his younger sister.
When Thomas found the strength to play in the immediate aftermath of his sister's passing, it seemed inconceivable. When Thomas rallied his team from an 0-2 deficit against the Chicago Bulls despite his obvious grief, it felt unimaginable.
When Thomas made a cross-country dash back to Boston after trekking to Tacoma, Washington, for his sister's funeral on Saturday and then, short on sleep, scored 33 points in Boston's Game 1 win over the Washington Wizards on Sunday, it seemed incomprehensible.
But then there was Tuesday. What would have been his sister Chyna's 23rd birthday. A day that Thomas spent much of at a local hospital while undergoing a second round of oral surgery to repair the damage inflicted when one of his front teeth was dislodged in that Game 1 victory.
Thomas understandably struggled to find energy in the hours before tipoff, and Horford admitted, "A lot of guys wouldn't have even played this game."
But Thomas did not believe that was an option. Not after the stirring words he had offered as part of his sister's eulogy three days earlier. In saying goodbye to his sister, Thomas noted how, for the first time in his life, he felt like quitting when he first learned the news of her passing following a single-vehicle accident on April 15.
Instead, he pledged to keep going in her memory.
So on Chyna Thomas' 23rd birthday, Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points to will his team to a 129-119 triumph over the Wizards at TD Garden. On a night when he required a personalized mouthguard to protect his surgically repaired teeth, Thomas fearlessly attacked the basket while scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He simply refused to let this game get away.
It's a journalist's job to find the proper words to put situations like these in perspective. But like Thomas' coach and teammates, we're admittedly struggling here. It would seem fair to suggest that Thomas can't possibly do anything more remarkable than what we saw Tuesday.
And yet Stevens probably wouldn't be willing to say that again. Because Isaiah Thomas continues to amaze.
"What else is there to say?" Stevens said after Tuesday's win. "There's a point today when he was not feeling good at all and was having a tough day. And I thought he was going to really have to gut this one out. And he not only guts it out, he ends up with 50. Pretty impressive."
During an on-court interview with TNT following the game, Thomas fought back emotions while detailing how this was his sister's birthday and how she served as his inspiration.
"My sister wouldn't want me to stop," Thomas said, his voice wobbly. "The only thing about it is, once I leave this gym, I hit reality and she's not here. So that's the tough part. But, when I'm in this arena, I can lock in and I know everything I do is for her."
Ignore all else going on around Thomas and his performance was remarkable on its own:
His 53 points were the second-highest postseason output by a Celtics player, trailing only John Havlicek's 54 in 1973.
He became the first Boston player to record a 50-point game in both the regular season and playoffs.
His 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime were just one point fewer than the Wizards scored as a team in the same span.
He has scored 86 points in the first two games of this series. That's the highest combined total ever in the first two games of a series, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
"It's been a lot of fun just watching him work, perform, just making the right plays," Horford said. "It's hard in the heat of the moment to know when to pass, when you got it going like that, or when to score. Isaiah seems so poised every time. Making the right decision, when to pass the ball, when to shoot it, and you can't be mad at him because he's scoring the ball so well when he's taking shots, he just has that feel.
"Not a lot of people have that feel to do both, and he's able to do it. Honestly, I didn't even know he had that many points. I all of a sudden looked up and saw 51. He's just steady, steady, steady, and just the credit goes to him. After going through all that he's been going through with the tooth and everything, I just don't think a lot of guys would have even played this game. It's something special after what he's gone through the past 24, 36 hours to come out and drop 53."
In typical Thomas fashion, he's already dreaming bigger.
"It's nice for your name to be in Celtics history because of all the great players, but until you win one of those championships you can't call yourself a great player," he said. "That's the ultimate goal."
Thomas admitted he has dreamed about playing his best basketball on the NBA's biggest stage. He entered the season with a desire to learn how to win in the postseason and, with six straight playoff victories, he has positioned the Celtics to make the leap to the Eastern Conference finals.
There is still work to be done in this series. But Thomas has plenty of motivation. He noted how legends are born in the postseason.
What Thomas might not realize in the moment is that he might have already etched his place in Celtics lore. What he did Tuesday night and what he has done this entire postseason defies words.
But one thing is certain: Thomas continues to amaze.