The house lights at TD Garden go dark when the national anthem is performed before a Celtics game. During the warm-ups that preceded that moment Sunday, point guard Isaiah Thomas mostly looked like he always does. He fired up jump shots. He worked on his ball-handling.
But when the arena dimmed for the anthem, it offered the grieving Thomas a rare moment of privacy in front of 18,624 spectators. His eyes reddened and tears streaked down his cheeks.
On Saturday morning, Thomas’s 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, was killed in a crash in Federal Way, Wash., when her Toyota Camry veered off a highway and struck a cement barrier and a large sign post. She died at the scene.
Thomas did not find out until his close friend and teammate Avery Bradley told him what had happened after Saturday afternoon’s practice. The next 24 hours were a painful whirlwind for Thomas, who ultimately decided he would play in Game 1 of his team’s first-round playoff series against the Bulls on Sunday.
He wrote his sister’s name and “R.I.P. Lil Sis” with a black marker on his green Nikes, and then he led the Celtics out of the tunnel and onto the court to a massive ovation. Usually the Celtics bounce around in a happy clump after pregame introductions. But this time, they just surrounded Thomas in a big and solemn group hug.
Although Thomas played brilliantly, tallying 33 points and six assists on a night points and assists felt rather trivial, it was not enough for his team to gather a win, as the Bulls grabbed a 106-102 victory and took early control of this best-of-seven series.
“The perspective of it all hits you in a hard way,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I’m not only proud of the effort, but the way they supported him. I couldn’t help but be inspired by his play.”
Thomas’s performance gave no indication that he was in pain, but his teammates noticed a difference. It was clear to them that Thomas did not want to talk about what had happened, or about how he was feeling, or about anything really. So they just gave him space and made it clear that whenever or wherever he needed them, they would be there.
“We’re going to continue to keep fighting this series. We’re going to continue to keep hope alive,” said Gerald Green, one of Thomas’s closest friends on the team. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to make sure that our brother is OK, and we’re with him through this tough situation.”
Stevens said the upcoming days will be no easier for Thomas, and his status for the rest of this week remains unclear.
“If he needs to and wants to stay here, then we’ll be here surrounding him,” Stevens said. “And if he wants to go [home] to Seattle, then he should go to Seattle. It’s his call.”
If the Celtics had won on Sunday the talk afterward would have centered on how they had rallied around Thomas and won it for him. But now the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team has ceded the home-court advantage it worked so hard to secure this year, and it must win four of the next six games against a gritty Bulls team that is 3-2 against Boston this season.
It is easy for this series to feel trivial amid Thomas’s heartache, but on Sunday he made it clear that this all remains very important to him. So the Celtics will have to regroup. They will also have to find a way to get a rebound after being crushed on the backboards, 53-36, including 20 offensive boards by the Bulls.
“Every time they missed a shot, they got it and they either scored or got a great look off of it,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “Even though they were doing that, we were still in the game. Once we clean that up, we should be good.”
Jimmy Butler scored 23 of his 30 points in the second half to lead Chicago, and Robin Lopez added 14 points and 11 rebounds. After starting the game by making just 2 of 16 3-pointers, the Bulls closed by hitting 6 of 9.
After an emotional beginning, Thomas went to the free throw line just 37 seconds into the game and was serenaded by “MVP” chants. His first foul shot was short before he swished the second one.
It did not take him long to find a rhythm. With 8:34 left he drilled a deep 3-pointer from the right arc and added another just 78 seconds later. He then converted a layup and a tear-drop shot in the lane, giving him 13 points in the game’s opening 8 minutes, 30 seconds. When Thomas went to the bench with 50 seconds left in the quarter, about half of the Garden crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“He was incredible,” Stevens said. “He’s an amazing, amazing player. Amazing person.”
The Bulls started the second quarter with a 10-0 run as Thomas watched from the bench, though, and they led at halftime, 48-46.
Thomas appeared to key a big burst in the third quarter when he converted back-to-back 3-point plays within a 34-second span, giving the Celtics a 66-62 lead. But the Bulls were resilient.
With 1:18 left in the game, Bobby Portis drilled an 18-footer that made it 101-92. The Bulls still led by 9 with 45 seconds left, and a good number of fans headed to the exits.
But the Celtics made a final push.
Thomas pulled up for a 3-pointer that made it 104-100 with 14.4 seconds remaining. Bradley deflected the ensuing inbounds pass out of bounds off of Butler, and a Thomas layup with 7.5 seconds left cut the deficit to 104-102.
After a timeout, Butler received a long, dangerous crosscourt inbounds pass with Smart covering him tightly. But he caught the ball and dribbled for four seconds before he was fouled. He calmly hit two free throws, sealing the win and ending an emotional night for Thomas and the Celtics.