CHICAGO — The smiles were brief as Isaiah Thomas sat in the Boston Celtics locker room after the game. But they were there and, for now, that’s enough.
He’s not over the shocking death of his younger sister, killed in a car crash less than a week ago. Not even close. Truth is, it will be months, maybe years, before his life returns to normal. Or whatever normal looks like when your heart has been ripped to pieces and you can’t even fathom how you begin to put it back together.
Maybe, however, it starts like this.
Taking some comfort in the two days he spent with his family in Seattle, Thomas helped Boston to a 104-87 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Friday night that got the top-seeded Celtics back into their first-round series.
It was not the best offensive night by any means for Thomas, whose 16 points were well below both his season average of 28.9 and the 33 and 20 he scored in the first two games of the series. He was just 7-of-18 from the floor, not even cracking the 40% mark.
But he made plays for everybody else, as he and the rest of the Celtics played with an ease that was noticeably absent – and understandably so — in Games 1 and 2.
“I’m proud of him for how he put it all together,” said Al Horford, who led the Celtics with 18 points, many of those coming on pick-and-rolls with Thomas.
“I just think, one way or another, he had some closure.”
Thomas’ younger sister, Chyna, was killed early Saturday morning, the day before the playoffs began in Boston. Thomas, an All-Star and the Celtics’ centerpiece, opted to stay with the team, but his grief was palpable.
He fought back tears as Game 1 began and, try as he might, his eyes never lost their glazed look. It was as if his body was in Boston but his mind and heart were in Washington.
“The pain I am feeling right now is impossible to put into words,” Thomas said in a statement issued Wednesday through the Celtics. “This has been without question the hardest week of my life.”
Knowing how badly Thomas was hurting left his teammates reeling, too. The team that finished atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season dropped the first two games to the Bulls, only the second time in NBA history a No. 1 seed had fallen behind 2-0 to an eighth seed.
Thomas flew to Washington after Game 2 and spent Wednesday and Thursday with his family. When he joined the Celtics in Chicago, his pain was still evident. But so, too, were glimpses of the old Isaiah.
“It’s been a really hard week. He’s going to have his ups and downs,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said before the game. “I think going to Seattle was a good thing. It was hard. But seeing his dad and being around his family and that support network was important.
“So, again, I say he’s feeling better and obviously there’s an asterisk next to that,” Stevens added. “There’s going to always be ups and downs.”