The emotion was palpable when Isaiah Thomas took the floor with his Celtics teammates for Game 1 of their playoff series with the Bulls at TD Garden in the wake of his sister’s death just 24 hours earlier.
Whether he was fighting back tears in the warm-ups or looking exhausted on the sidelines after an emotional day, there wasn’t a moment where you didn’t realize Thomas was dealing with real life instead of just the opener of a playoff series.
Having Jimmy Butler guard him for long stretches pales in comparison to the shocking, tragic news of his sister’s death in a car accident in Washington early Saturday morning.
Nobody knows how he made the decision to play, or how he felt when the roar of the Garden crowd reached deafening decibels when his name was introduced in the starting lineup, but from his eyes to his feet the signs were there of a man feeling powerless in an environment that relies on him being powerful.
Thomas’ shoes had his sister’s name, Chyna, written in black marker along with “I love you” on another part of his shoe. When a moment of silence for Thomas was announced before the national anthem, the big brother’s eyes turned red as the best reality show sports can offer provided a reality far too real and perhaps, slightly intrusive for the situation.
“Obviously, it's tragic circumstances that he and his family are going through right now. Our thoughts are first and foremost with all of them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think his intention is to play. We talked a little bit last night and then again today about as he goes through it and feels like he needs to not, then whatever he wants.”
“I think one of the things I've learned having been through situations in the past is there's really no right or wrong answers. Whatever is right for him. That's what we've encouraged him and he's really hurting. It's a tough situation.”
Stevens took the appropriate tone and all others followed suit, as players with varying degrees of relationship with Thomas were asked how to deal with approaching him or competing against him, as if there’s a manual to this.
“Isaiah’s a great teammate, Isaiah’s a great husband, a great father,” Stevens said. “A great guy, son and brother. I think ultimately we just all try to do our part and let him know we’re thinking about him and anything we can all do to help, we do. We’re a family and this particular situation with his family takes precedence over everything that’s going on. We’re here for him if he needs us.”
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg echoed Stevens’ sentiments.
“You know, obviously it's a horrible tragedy,” said Hoiberg before the game. “I know I speak on behalf of the entire organization when I say we offer our thoughts and prayers to Isaiah and the entire Thomas family. He just seems like such a great kid, obviously he's one of the great competitors that we have in our league. He seems like such a good kid. And it's just awful, what happened. So again, our thoughts and prayers are with Isaiah during this tough time.”
Having been embraced by the Boston fans for his big plays and bigger swagger during his short time, Stevens knew the support would be overwhelming.
“I don’t think there’s any question people have a great affinity for him. Even in my short time here, you see the really tough things that happen, the community really rallies around,” Stevens said. “You can already feel that. You can already feel, as I was in church this morning, people were coming up to me and wanted to know how he was doing and all talking about it. When you get here, that’s all people talk about. It’s gonna be really emotional but that’s part of what makes this place really special, is they get it and they really appreciate Isaiah and I know Isaiah really appreciates everybody here.”
The box score suggests that his 31 points were of his usual nature but seeing him through the game says otherwise. At times, he looked close to passing out, lifted up only by the Garden crowd that cheered his every move when he touched the ball to start the game. When Avery Bradley hugged him after an early run, he held him a little tighter, a little longer.
“Isaiah, to me, he’s family. We grew up in the same area,” Bradley said. “I know it’s tough for him. It says a lot about him. He’s a true competitor. I know tonight he was playing for his sister.”
When he scored 13 points in the first quarter, and then took over a stretch in third where he got two consecutive three-point plays, it seemed as if he would lift the Celtics to a magical ending.
But even if he had, the reality would never leave him, and it won’t leave him as the process of dealing with such a loss is only just beginning.