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Buckley: Lost tooth provides light moment for Isaiah Thomas’ heavy heart

April 30, 2017 GMT

Many of us have had this happen: After losing a close family member due to a sudden, unspeakable tragedy, a moment of levity arrives that serves as the first reminder that it really is possible to pick up and move on.

For Isaiah Thomas, that moment arrived about seven minutes into Game 1 of the Celtics’ best-of-seven playoff series against the Washington Wizards Sunday afternoon at the Garden. He was trying to deflect a pass intended for the Wizards’ Otto Porter, but he didn’t get the ball. He got the elbow. Replays showed a tooth — a real one, not a cap — escaping Thomas’ mouth and landing on the parquet, just inside the 3-point line.

Thomas’ reaction to this? He picked up the tooth, and then he picked up the pace. He immediately connected on back-to-back, 3-point attempts, and those two shots did more than anything to help re-energize a team that just a few minutes earlier was facing the possibility of being humiliated on its home court.

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The Celtics had fallen behind, 16-0.

The two treys by Thomas cut Washington’s lead to 22-11.

And then it got easy.

The Celtics went on to claim a 123-111 victory.

Now you all know that Thomas was playing in very real pain — pain that’s far deeper, far more emotional —than taking an elbow in the face. It wasn’t until very early Sunday morning he had returned from Tacoma, Wash., after attending the funeral of his sister, Chyna Thomas, who was killed April 15 in a car crash on Interstate 5, south of Seattle.

Yet despite the lack of sleep, despite dealing with a range of emotions we can only understand by reviewing the details of the tragic events that have taken place in our own lives, Isaiah Thomas decided to play.

With a heavy heart, he led all scorers with 33 points.

And with just a trace of a smile, he was able to see the lighter side of losing a tooth.

“Well, it does bother me to talk,” he said, making this the rare case in which the media did a better job slowing down a star player than the opposing team did.

“My tongue goes right through my tooth,” he said. “I’ve never had dental problems, so this is new. I’ve always had teammates that I’ve clowned with about their teeth being out, and now I’m one of them.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we can replace it as soon as possible.”

Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “He and my 7-year-old daughter gave each other the open-tooth smile. And then he made both 3’s right after it fell out. So maybe that tooth was holding him back a little.”

And there was this, from teammate Avery Bradley: “(He) looks a little tougher — I like it. I was making jokes during the game on the bench and I got him laughing. It was funny. There’s a guy from Seattle named Rodney Stuckey and he plays with a missing tooth, and I told Isaiah he should go with that look for the rest of the playoffs.”

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If you’ve been through what Isaiah Thomas is going through right now, you see the welcome humor in that. You understand that a small moment — one that at first glance isn’t really part of the big picture — has the power to become a nice little story at a time when everyone involved could use one. I guarantee this: Years from now, even as family members are kindly remembering Chyna Thomas, somebody will size up the mood of the gathering and then mention Isaiah’s lost tooth. There will be knowing smiles.

Sunday, before Isaiah Thomas made his way to the podium, Celtics vice president of media services Jeff Twiss asked those in the room to “... please keep it to basketball questions. I.T. would appreciate that.”

It was a fair request, but nobody wanted to take Isaiah Thomas back to his sister’s funeral. Instead, there was one general question about the young Celtics star “running on adrenaline this weekend.”

“I got in at 4 a.m.,” he replied. “I tried to get as much sleep as I could on the flight and then when I got home this morning. It’s tough, but it’s the playoffs.

“So there are no excuses,” he said. “I decided to play and then I just tried to give it all for my team and we came out with the win.”

He did more than give it his all. He gave it a tooth.

But in ways he doesn’t yet realize, Isaiah Thomas will always have that tooth. And the story that goes with it.