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The moments that sustain Isaiah Thomas

Facing fierce emotional and physical pain, Isaiah finds refuge with his Celtics teammates.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

BOSTON — Hours after securing the Celtics’ first playoff series victory in five years and the first of his career, Isaiah Thomas flew home to Seattle to deliver the eulogy at his sister’s funeral. He talked about wanting to quit when he found out Chyna had died in a car accident on the eve of the playoffs and how he had never entertained those thoughts before. But Chyna wouldn’t have let him quit, and so Isaiah said that everything he would do from here on out would be for her.

He arrived back in Boston at 4 a.m. on Sunday with Game 1 of its second-round series with Washington scheduled for early that afternoon. His coach, Brad Stevens, later said that he didn’t know when Thomas had arrived, but he had texted with him throughout the day about speaking at the funeral. Stevens, like everyone else, is amazed at how Thomas has persevered through the tragedy.

“It’s unbelievable,” Stevens said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

About 12 hours after landing back in Boston, IT had scored 33 points with nine assists in a Celtics victory. He was also minus a tooth after catching an elbow in the mouth.

On Monday, he underwent several hours of oral surgery. When he woke up on the morning of Game 2, his mouth had swollen and he returned for more work. Later that night, he scored 53 points including 29 in the fourth quarter and overtime, just one point fewer than what the Wizards scored as a team during that span.

“Today is my sister’s birthday,” Thomas said afterward, his voice choking up. “She would have been 23 today. The least I can do is play for her.”

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah hasn’t spoken much about his sister publicly, and reporters covering the series have kept a respectful distance. With those words, an eerie silence enveloped the makeshift interview room allowing Thomas a respite to compose himself. He wasn’t the only one who needed it.

The moment calls for something profound, but what can you say about something like this? As Thomas told TNT’s David Aldridge after the game, “My sister wouldn’t want me to stop. The only thing about it, once I leave the gym and hit reality, she’s not there.”

It’s the moment that keeps Thomas going through all of this. At times on Tuesday, he wasn’t even sure if he could play, with his head throbbing and his heart heavy. But once he arrived at the arena and was around his teammates, he knew he would try. The games have been his temporary escape, and the court has been his sanctuary.

As he’s done so many times this season, Thomas was everything for the Celtics in the fourth quarter. Up until then, the game had belonged to John Wall, who was dazzling in his own right. But then IT took over and everything changed.

He hit big shot after big shot. He kept the Wizards’ big men back on their heels and in foul trouble. He found open players through the seams of the defense, including an absurd wraparound pass to Terry Rozier who knocked down the three-pointer that tied the score at 110. He even came up with several defensive stops, going so far as to challenge 7-footer Marcin Gortat at the rim and force a kickout pass.

“Unbelievable, man. Unbelievable,” said Amir Johnson, shaking his head in disbelief and admiration. “He’s the heart and soul right now. He’s playing out of his mind.”

There were so many moments that they all blurred together. Massive threes. A crossover that left Markieff Morris on the ground. Clutch free throws late in regulation that tied the game. Those moments are what he lives for and it’s those moments that sustain him through his grief.

“One thing I always try to do is stay in the moment,” Thomas said. “I always dreamed of moments like this. Winning playoff series, close games, overtime games in the playoffs, because that’s where legends are born. One day I want to be one of those guys.”

What has impressed everyone throughout the season, but especially now, is how Thomas has slowed down in those moments. Gone are the days when he goes 1-of-5 and jacks up whatever shot he could get. Now he reads the actions and understands when he needs to attack and when someone else is open. He plays with an edge but maintains his calm.

“It’s hard in the heat of the moment to know when to pass when you got it going like that, when to score and Isaiah seems so poised every time,” Al Horford said. “Making the right decision, when to pass the ball, when to shoot it. And you can’t be mad at him because he’s scoring the ball so well when he’s taking shots. He just has that feel.”

The moment belonged to Isaiah Thomas and when the moment was gone, he slipped back into his life as a grieving brother trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. There will be more moments, and he needs as many of them as he can get right now. They are for him and his sister, who wouldn’t let him quit. It would all be so unbelievable if it wasn’t so real.