James Thomas is 5 years old and his brother Jaiden is 4, so it can be understandably difficult to get them to sit still over a three-hour basketball game. And Friday was no different, even as their father carved through the Atlanta Hawks in perhaps the biggest night of his career.
“Right now, we can get them through a half,” Isaiah Thomas’s fiancee, Kayla Wallace, said as she walked the boys through the bowels of TD Garden late Friday night. “We’re working on it.”
They might not understand exactly what their father did for the Celtics in this game, but someday they will. They’ll know about his career-high 42 points and his deep and daring 3-pointer in the final minutes, and how he would not and could not let his team lose another playoff game.
“Isaiah’s biggest thing was making sure his guys keep their confidence up,” Wallace said, “because he knows what they’re capable of.”
On this night, they were capable of a 111-103 win that sliced Atlanta’s lead in this best-of-seven series to 2-1. It was a feisty, physical game that was overflowing with flagrant fouls and plenty of trash talk, but Thomas said he welcomes all of that.
“I was just in attack mode,” he said. “I was just trying to do whatever it took to win this game.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens knew it would take quite a lot, too. The Celtics are still without Avery Bradley (hamstring) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder), and they had been so thoroughly dismantled in Game 2 in Atlanta, that something had to change.
So Stevens made several critical adjustments. In Atlanta, the Hawks had clogged the interior and made it difficult for Thomas to operate, daring Boston to hit perimeter jump shots. On Friday night, Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner were put into the starting lineup, and Stevens put an emphasis on having Thomas play off of the ball.
Jerebko is a versatile defender and capable 3-point shooter. He had not started in more than three years, but it did not seem that way. He finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds and was essential at the start.
“One of the things Coach said was just come out and play your game,” Jerebko said. “The first two games we came out kind of flat, and I just tried to bring the energy to start the game out right.”
Turner, meanwhile, gives Boston a big, athletic guard who is capable of knifing into the teeth of a defense and finding teammates or hitting mid-range jumpers. He finished with 17 points and seven assists.
Video: Evan Turner fourth-quarter drive
Stevens, who has drawn extensive praise as one of the league’s top up-and-coming coaches, had two days to come up with some kind of fix, and this one worked perfectly. It was his first career playoff win after an 0-6 start. That small milestone, of course, hardly resonated amid the intensity of what Boston hopes will become a long and challenging series.
“Game Sunday,” Stevens said when asked what it meant to get his first win. “It’s better than the alternative, but this team’s too good to do anything but focus on what’s next.”
As the fans at TD Garden put on the green T-shirts that were draped over their seats and chanted for the Celtics before tip-off, there was a sense of desperation in the air. They knew time was growing increasingly short. Over the first two games, the Celtics scored a total of 26 points in the first quarter.
This night was different, as Boston displayed the urgency that is needed when a series seems to be slipping away. Jerebko soared in and converted a tip-slam on Boston’s first possession, and then drilled a 3-pointer two minutes later, and the arena all but shook.
The Celtics were just 5 of 28 on 3-pointers in Game 2, and less than four minutes into Game 3, they had already drained four of them, as Thomas’s long jumper gave Boston a 15-6 lead.
Video: Isaiah Thomas third-qarter 3-pointer
A 3-pointer by Terry Rozier in the final minute put the Celtics ahead, 37-20. That was more points than they had in the first half of either of the first two games of this series. The Celtics led by as many as 20 points in the second quarter, but the Hawks slowly clawed back and pulled within 57-45 at the break.
After Boston started the third quarter with a quick 7-0 burst to stretch the lead to 19 points, the Hawks responded quickly, unspooling a 33-13 run to take a 78-77 lead.
The Celtics led, 86-85, with less than nine minutes left when both offenses found a rhythm. They combined to make 10 consecutive shots, as a layup by Jeff Teague (23 points) pulled Atlanta within 99-98 with 6:13 left.
But Thomas would not let the Celtics wilt. With 1:53 left and his team clinging to a 105-101 lead, he had the ball knocked away as he tried to draw a foul on a 3-pointer. He then regained possession, and his 3-pointer from about 5 feet behind the right side of the arc swished through the net.
As Thomas stood at the free throw line with 42.9 seconds remaining and all but put the game away with a pair of foul shots, he was serenaded by chants of “MVP.”
“I just want to follow in the footsteps of all the Celtics greats,” Thomas said, “and I know that starts with winning.”
Video: Jonas Jerebko first-quarter dunk