Isaiah Rising: Celtics Take 2–0 Lead Over Wizards in East Semis Behind Thomas’ Brilliance

How does one become indomitable? Basketball is a game of energy. A game of moments. Harmony and noise. Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in Boston was one of those rare games that feels less like a game and more like a test of will. A bout of endurance and survival. And survive the Boston Celtics did, in overtime, holding court and taking a 2–0 series lead over their newfound rivals, the Washington Wizards.

It’s important to note how this series started. On Sunday, the first 3 and a half minutes of the series were a nightmare for Boston. With 8:31 remaining in the first quarter, the score was: Wizards 16, Celtics 0.

Any number of excuses popped up in the brain. Both teams advanced on Friday night, and then were forced to turn around and play within 40 hours. Isaiah flew to Washington on Saturday and delivered a eulogy for his sister, who would have turned 23 on May 2, the date of Game 2. Now the Celtics were playing the Wizards in a matinee. Matinee games are usually sloppy. It’s a wonder that the NBA still plays playoff games at 1pm EST. But here we were, witnessing a prolonged Celtics fart cloud over the first few minutes of the biggest game they’d played since 2012.

Then, as Isaiah chased Otto Porter around a pick into the lane, Porter’s elbow whacked Isaiah in the mouth and his tooth was knocked clean out. A few minutes into the series. The Celtics had yet to score. Isaiah calmly spotted the tooth on the parquet, went over and picked it up, and then handed it to the team trainer. A minute later, he was dropping in three free throws. Another minute later, he’s swished two three-pointers. Suddenly, the series had begun, and the Celtics didn’t look back in Game 1. They ended up pulling away late in the game, dropping more three-pointers than it seemed they had in the whole Chicago Bulls series.

It’s now been two weeks since Isaiah’s sister’s tragic death. The playoff games are meaningful, but pale in comparison to the reality of life and death. Fortunately, the entire organization is as genuinely supportive as Isaiah is. GM Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens have repeatedly supported Isaiah in making whichever choice he chooses to make, regarding these games.

How does one cope with tragedy? A game seems as good an option as any in order to keep from allowing the complicated feelings of grief to overtake us.

Basketball is a sanctuary for so many. The game is an outlet. We release ourselves into the game and play with abandon. We watch the world’s best athletes release themselves into the game and we marvel.

Fight or flight. Both of these teams are ready to fight, refusing to back down. We saw it during the regular season. We see it amplified during the physical cauldron of the playoffs. In Game 2, it seemed every player on the court took an awkward fall. Every player seemed to get his head knocked around, either by an opponent or by the court itself. Every player seemed to be grimacing throughout the second half. This wasn’t a game. It was something else.

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Isaiah Thomas and John Wall in a rare moment where the camera has them in focus, not in a blur.

Isaiah scored 53 points. But it wasn’t the number of points. It was the way he persisted, the way he refused to be denied. He will find open space on a court where there was none. He will get wherever he needs to go. Only a handful of NBA guards can dream of creating the space he creates, the way he moves through cramped corners, and keeps defenders lurching and swiping at air. Only a handful (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, John Wall), and none shoot as well as he does.

Isaiah has dominated the fourth quarter all year, leading the NBA by averaging 9 points per game in the 4th. Tonight, Isaiah went for 20, fueling Boston’s comeback. Down 7, early in the 4th, with each Isaiah basket, the decibel level rose in the Garden. Of all the dazzling plays Isaiah made, my favorite might have been a mid-air contortionist assist to second-year guard Terry Rozier, who received crucial end-game minutes from Brad Stevens. With 1:38 left, Isaiah collapsed the defense and somehow found Rozier open in the corner. Rozier stepped up and drained the three, as if he’s been doing this for years. Tie-game at 110. Garden crowd goes berserk one more time.

It took two of the Wizards mainstays fouling out (Markieff Morris, playing on a badly sprained ankle, and Marcin Gortat) for the Celtics to eventually pull away in OT. Isaiah, off course, put the icing on the cake, with 9 of the team’s 15 overtime points, culminating in a 129–119 victory. Isaiah dedicated the performance to his sister, saying she was watching over him, and the least he can do is go out and play for her.

Isaiah is indomitable, and yet, so is Washington point guard John Wall, who had a ridiculous halftime line of 23 points and 9 assists, pushing Washington to 67 first-half points. Wall finished with 40 points, 13 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks.

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Isaiah spent four hours having dental surgery on Monday, the one day off between Games 1 and 2.

Game Friday. Fly to Washington. Funeral service. Fly back to Boston that evening. Game Sunday at 1pm. Dental surgery Monday. Game Tuesday. Wednesday brings a much needed day off. Thursday brings Game Three down in Washington.

There ain’t no rest for the weary, but a few among us don’t need the rest, their spirit soars regardless…

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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