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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

When Celtics needed Isaiah Thomas’s best, they got it

Isaiah Thomas fed off the energy at TD Garden and dropped 42 points in Game 3.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

When Isaiah Thomas drained the 25-footer, giving the scrambling, desperate Celtics a 7-point lead with 1 minute 53 seconds left, you could almost hear him whisper “game time.” After the Atlanta Hawks spent the final three quarters pushing the Celtics, making them uncomfortable, executing better than they had in the previous two games, Thomas finally extinguished their chances with an improbable shot.

It was the biggest of his 12 field goals, the most impressive of his career-high 42 points. The Celtics needed Thomas to be at his absolute best because his teammates all were struggling. And he delivered in the Celtics’ 111-103 win.

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The Hawks lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, with Game 4 on Sunday at TD Garden.

Thomas didn’t spend his evening jacking up shots against a prepared defense. He picked his spots. He took shots in rhythm. He attacked the basket. He got more calls than he did in the first two games combined and he never relented.

As Celtics coach Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup to allow Evan Turner more ball-handling responsibilities and Jonas Jerebko to help space the floor, Thomas moved to more of a shooting guard. He didn’t carry the responsibility of making plays for his teammates. They made plays for him or he was allowed to create for himself.

He got into a highly charged battle with Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, who responded with 20 points of his own in 22:26. Both picked up technical fouls after Thomas took a swipe at Schroder and the Hawk responded with a forearm.

What was an early 20-point lead in front of a crowd that brought back memories of the Big Three days with its intensity turned into a 1-point game at the end of three quarters. Thomas had already scored 31 points — nearly 40 percent of the Celtics’ output — but more was required.

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Video: Isaiah Thomas third-qarter 3-pointer

Stevens usually holds out Thomas for the first four or five minutes of the fourth quarter so he can close down the stretch. With the Hawks closing in, Stevens inserted Thomas with 9:13 left and Atlanta leading, 85-84. Thomas hit a free throw, then scored a layup, and followed with three more free throws before that game-clinching 3-pointer.

Thomas joins an esteemed listed of 40-point playoff scorers in Celtics’ history. Ray Allen, JoJo White, Rajon Rondo, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, Sam Jones, and Reggie Lewis also tallied at least 40 in the postseason.

“That makes me feel happy, just to be in the same category with those great players,” Thomas said. “I just want to follow in the footsteps of all the Celtics’ greats. That starts by winning and then winning championships. We’re far from that but I still want to have my name up there, so I’m happy about that.”

Thomas always stresses striving for greatness, becoming a cornerstone in Boston, a mainstay. After shooting a combined 33 percent in the first two games in Atlanta and looking bewildered by the Hawks swarming defense, Thomas received a couple of encouraging calls from two of the best little men to play the game: Allen Iverson and (the original) Isiah Thomas.

“Allen Iverson just said ‘Keep fighting, they did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta and now it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home,’ ” Thomas said. “Isiah Thomas just gave me a few times. I can’t tell you guys. He told me what he seen. He helped me out a lot.”

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For the Celtics to have a chance to win this series, they need Isaiah to Isaiah. Avery Bradley is likely out for the rest of the series. Jae Crowder went 1-for-11 shooting and is now 7 for 36 in the series, essentially playing on one leg.

On Friday, the Celtics were Isaiah and the Thomasaires with the next highest scorer Turner with 17 points. Boston struggled to score in the half court but it also played good enough defense to seal the win when the Atlanta trio of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford went a combined 2 for 11 in the fourth period.

And Thomas was able to provide the finishing blow by getting to the free throw line, finishing with 11 points in the final period.

“[Friday] was a game where I didn’t care what happened, I was out there trying to make the right play, make the winning play,” Thomas said.

“I always try to hit 40, so I’m glad I got there. I felt like I had to be more in attack mode. Coach put me in position to show the Hawks something different, in position to be in scoring opportunities. My teammates found me. My job is easy, just put the ball in the basket.”

Video: Isaiah Thomas second-quarter drive

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Stevens took advantage of the two-day break and made the right adjustments to allow Thomas to be himself again, reducing his responsibility and turning him into the primary scoring option.

“He did a lot of what he did all year in the first two games, it was just everybody was at the rim to challenge him,” Stevens said. “We made a couple of shots, that loosens up [the defense] a little bit and then we got some movement before the drive which loosens it up a little bit. He’s a really good player and a really competitive guy, so I’m not surprised when he plays well.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.