Blakely: Thomas honors sister, Celtics with performance for the ages

Blakely: Thomas honors sister, Celtics with performance for the ages

BOSTON – These days have been difficult, emotionally draining times for Isaiah Thomas.

His sister Chyna Thomas was killed in a one-car accident on April 15, and her funeral was held two weeks later.

And on Monday, it was her birthday.

She would have been 23.

In between, Thomas has had to battle the pain that such emotions surely bring on, with the reality that he has been charged with leading the Boston Celtics into the playoff promise land that a number one seed like the Celtics are expected to venture into.

Despite all the challenges and hurdles that have come his way, Thomas hasn’t just soldiered through these teams.

He has grown bigger, stronger, more unstoppable.

The 5-foot-9 Thomas was all that and then some on Tuesday, delivering a game for the ages in leading the Celtics to a 129-119 overtime win Game 2 of their best-of-seven series with the Washington Wizards.

He scored a playoff career-high 53 points, the second-highest scoring game in Celtics playoff history, trailing the great John Havlicek who scored 54 points on April 1, 1973.

Thomas wasn’t searching for another spot among the all-time great Celtics on Tuesday.

His focus was honoring his sister and in the process, finding a way, anyway, to lead Boston to a victory which now has them ahead 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

“I was just so locked in that fourth quarter and overtime because I wanted to win the game so bad that I really didn’t know what I had (point-wise),”  said Thomas who scored 29 points in the fourth quarter and the overtime session. “I just knew that I had to keep being aggressive.”

He was that indeed, although he had some company most of the night in Washington’s John Wall.

Wall finished with a double-double of 40 points and 13 assists, although the Celtics kept him scoreless in the overtime session.

Even though their point totals were on the high side, this was not Larry Bird-Dominique Wilkins from the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals when they seemingly went shot-for-shot before the Celtics emerged with the win as Bird and Wilkins scored 34 and 47 points, respectively.

But make no mistake about what happened Tuesday night.

Thomas’ play will be an instant classic, and will be remembered years from now as one of the greatest individual performances by a Celtics player ever in a postseason game.

Not only because of the volume of points he scored, or its significance in terms of keeping the Celtics in control of this series.

But because of all the off-the-court challenges he has faced in recent weeks, including the replacement of a tooth that was knocked out in Game 1.

Thomas spent six hours in the dentist’s chair on Monday, and another four or five hours prior to tonight’s game.

“(Earlier) today my mouth was so swollen I had to go back to the hospital to get a few meds to get the swelling down because I could barely talk,” Thomas said. “I knew once game time came, my guys would get me going and get me the energy to try and win the game.”

Following the game, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens once again found himself – like most of us – stunned and amazed at how Thomas continues to find ways to elevate his game despite their being so many reasons, legitimate ones, for his game to fall off.

“What else is there to say?” Stevens said. “You know, 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 (53). Pretty impressive.”

Said Marcus Smart: “He (Thomas) was in a zone. He wasn't going to let anything or anyone stop him. He was unstoppable tonight."

Terry Rozier added, “It’s just time after time after time. He just gets it done. He’s great to watch. He’s a great teammate. I’m happy for him.”

But this monumental achievement was indeed a bittersweet time for Thomas, knowing it was in part motivated by the death of his sister.

And while Thomas was certainly motivated to win because it is the playoffs, doing so in honor of his sister seemed to make him even more locked in than usual.

“I know it was for her,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley who grew up in the same Tacoma, Washington neighborhood as Thomas. “It was special; it was special.”

Said Thomas: “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 until you do that. That is the ultimate goal.”

Celtics fans may see a little Pierce in Middleton's game

Celtics fans may see a little Pierce in Middleton's game

MILWAUKEE – Sitting down before a recent shoot-around, Khris Middleton looks comfortable, at ease, very chill.

And when you watch him play, he exudes similar qualities on the floor, often moving at a pace that seems slower than most and yet he still manages to get buckets – lots of buckets.

Celtics fans have had the pleasure of seeing similar skills on display for more than a decade in Paul Pierce.  

So, it’s no surprise that Middleton counts Pierce among those whose play has greatly influenced his game.

“He was a great scorer,” Middleton said of Pierce whose number 34 was retired earlier this season at the TD Garden. “He had great footwork. He knew how to use his body, angles to get his shot off. He was probably a little bit faster than me, more athletic than me but he was crafty, knowing how to create just enough space to get his shot off or get by a guy. That’s what I try to do.”

While Boston has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against Middleton's Milwaukee Bucks, it certainly hasn’t been because of Middleton’s scoring.

The 6-foot-8 wing is averaging 28.0 points in the first two games, along with six rebounds and 3.5 assists, while shooting 64.7 percent from the field and 69.2 percent (9-for-13) from 3-point range.

Game 3 is Friday night in Milwaukee.

“He’s a good player,” said Boston’s Marcus Morris, who has competed against Middleton dating to when they were at Kansas and Texas A&M, respectively.

Middleton’s ascension to being such a key figure in Milwaukee’s roster speaks to how he was prepared when given an opportunity to perform.

A second-round pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2012, injuries limited his chances to play there.

So they traded him in 2013 to Milwaukee as essentially a salary-cap filler as part of a deal that sent Brandon Knight to the Bucks and Brandon Jennings to Detroit.

Middleton stresses that he has no ill-will towards Detroit; in fact, he’s thankful in hindsight for them trading him to a franchise that was willing to give him a shot at playing and to Middleton’s credit, he has been healthy enough to take advantage of it.

“Growing up all your life, you’re kind of that guy,” he said. “And then to get to the next level and be told you’re not that guy...it’s humbling. But it gave me a hungry mindset to keep working and never give up. That’s why I keep working, prove that I belong in this league and I belong on that court.”

You won’t get an argument from Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has been singing the praises of Middleton well before Boston found itself facing him and the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

“Middleton spaces the floor. He can run off screens and score,” Stevens said earlier. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. And he’s a knockdown shooter.”

And he’s hungry to continue adding to his offensive arsenal by learning from the league’s best players past and present, a group that includes Pierce.

“I try to take a little stuff from their game and fit it in my game,” Middleton said. “I’m not the most athletic guy, so I see how they set up some of their moves just to create a little bit of space to get their shot off; that’s what I try to do.”




Can Celtics take what worked at home on the road?

Can Celtics take what worked at home on the road?

MILWAUKEE – The Celtics are no different than most NBA teams that have successfully defended home court through the first couple playoff games.

As good as things may appear to be, taking what has worked at home on the road is easier said than done.

“We’re up 2-0, but we’ve seen teams lose [series after being up] 2-0,” said Celtics forward Marcus Morris. “So, we’ve got to go to Milwaukee and continue to take care of business.”

And while it may sound like typical coach speak, Brad Stevens has every reason to sound the alarm about this series being far from over, even with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“They’ve got a lot of strengths we’ve got to do a good job against,” Stevens said. “They put you in a lot of tough positions on offense and defense.”

The biggest issue for Boston up to this point has been at the defensive end of the floor where the Celtics have allowed the Bucks to shoot 53.8 percent from the field, which is tops among all playoff teams.

Boston’s defensive rating in the playoffs (105.9) ranks ninth among the 16 teams in the postseason, a noticeable dip from their league-leading 101.5 defensive rating in the regular season.

Still, the Bucks have in many ways been their own worst enemy, averaging a league-high 17.5 turnovers per game which have led to a total of 48 points for the Celtics which is tied with Oklahoma City for the most points scored off turnovers in the playoffs thus far.

To put that in perspective, Milwaukee’s turnovers have accounted for 20.6 percent of the points scored by Boston in this playoff series.

In the regular season, points off turnovers accounted for 17.0 percent of the points scored by the Celtics.

And that doesn’t even include the hustle plays that are also going Boston's way.

According to nba.com/stats, the Celtics have 66 box-outs compared to 62 by Milwaukee. And when it comes to getting loose balls, Boston has the edge there as well, 22-19.

In the postseason, those are the little things that on many nights, is the difference between having a “good try, good effort” loss or one in which you claw and fight your way towards victory.

Boston has played with a deep understanding of this.

The Milwaukee Bucks?

Not so much.

“We just have to be more into it, got to be a more desperate and hungry team,” Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton said following the Game 2 loss.

While the cast of characters who stepped up in Games 1 and 2 varied slightly for Boston, the fundamental keys to Boston’s victories over the Bucks remained very much the same.

But there’s no telling what impact Milwaukee returning home will have on what has worked thus far for the Celtics. 

But one thing all involved know – it can't hurt the Bucks, who know a Game 3 loss would all but end any hopes of moving on to the next round.