By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On the day his younger sister Chyna would have turned 23 years old, Isaiah Thomas fought through physical and emotional pain to put together one of the greatest performances in Celtics history.
The 5-foot-9 point guard nearly outscored the Wizards (30 points) by himself in the game’s final 17 minutes, tallying 29 of his game-high 53 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to carry the hosts to a 129-119 victory over the Washington Wizards at the TD Garden Tuesday night. The win gave Boston a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The incredible scoring output by Thomas was the second highest postseason point total in a game in franchise history, just one point shy of John Havlicek’s outing in 1973. The legendary effort came from a player who wasn’t sure he would be suiting up for Game 2 just hours before tip-off after several hours of dental surgery and the tragic loss of his sister weighing heavily on his mind.
“It just wasn’t a good day for me with it being my sister’s birthday, me being in the hospital for three or four hours today,” Thomas explained, courtesy of his lost tooth in Game 1. “I just didn’t have the energy. But once I got around the guys, got to the arena, I felt like I could go. And I told coach I could. There was no way I couldn’t play on [Chyna’s] birthday. I wanted to win for her. I wanted to play well for her.”
Thomas did just that, helping the Celtics rally from a double-digit second half deficit with a unpredictable mix of drives and perimeter shots. He was incredibly efficient as well, shooting 18-of-33 from the field (5-of-12 from 3) and 12-of-13 from the free throw line against a Wizards defense that had no answer for him for the second straight game.
“It is unbelievable,” Al Horford said of the performance. “It’s been a lot of fun just watching him work, perform, making the right plays. It’s hard in the heat of the moment to know when to pass when you’ve got it going like that. Isaiah seems so poised at that time, making the right decision when to pass, when to shoot. 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. Not a lot of people have that feel to do both, and he can do it.
“I didn’t know he had that many points. I suddenly looked up and he had 51, and I was like, Oh my God. He’s just steady, steady, steady, and the credit goes to him after going through everything he’s been going through and with the tooth and everything. A lot of guys wouldn’t have even played this game. It’s something special, after what he’s gone through in the last 36, 48 hours, to go out and drop 53. That’s special.”
In a fitting twist, no player had scored 53 points in a postseason game before Wednesday night since Allen Iverson in 2003. Iverson is one of the players that Thomas strove to be like while he grew up and the Celtics guard did just that by cementing his place in NBA playoff lore by matching Iverson while also out-dueling Wizards point guard John Wall (40 points, 13 assists) in the win.
While his historic night Tuesday will be sure to garner Thomas additional respect around the league, the 28-year-old guard remains focused on the bigger picture instead of his own individual accolades.
“I didn’t know I was close to 50,” Thomas admitted after the game. “I was so locked in in fourth quarter and overtime, because I just wanted to win so bad. I didn’t really know what I had, but I had to keep staying aggressive. Al was setting me great screens and getting me open, then I was trying to get downhill on the bigs because I knew they were in foul trouble. It’s nice for your name to be in Celtics history because of all the great players, but until you win one of those championships you can’t call yourself a great player. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Even though the Celtics still have a long way to go to reach that ultimate goal, Thomas continues to prove his value as a long-term building block for Danny Ainge as he pursues that next banner.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.