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Bulpett: Celtics sticking by Isaiah Thomas through triumph and tragedy

April 29, 2017 GMT

CHICAGO — With 4:56 left in the third quarter, Isaiah Thomas let it out.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

His lob to Al Horford had resulted in an emphatic slam and a 76-54 lead. As the Bulls called a timeout that everyone knew was futile, Thomas’ scream set off car alarms from here to Kankakee.

How much of it was pure basketball punctuation? How much of it was pent-up emotion from the loss of his sister?

For reasons quite understandable, those questions went unanswered last night. With still more than a minute left in what would become a first-round playoff series-clinching 105-83 victory, Thomas left the bench and headed to the dressing room. He was getting a head-start on a journey he would wish on no one.

There wasn’t much for his teammates to say.

“Thank you,” Gerald Green said. “Thank you, man.”

But Isaiah had little time to chat as he and C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge were leaving the United Center on their way to a chartered flight to Seattle and the funeral today of 22-year-old Chyna Thomas, lost in an automobile accident two weeks ago — a day before this series began.

“I know it’s been a tough week, but we really thank him for putting that aside and dealing with this, as well,” Green said. “I don’t really know how he’s able to do it. But we’re still with him, and we always will be with him. That’s our leader. I think a lot of guys just said thank you because I think a lot of guys want this, as well. I know he wants it. We want it for him. At the end of the day, I think he’ll say, when he came back in high spirits, the series was over after that.”

After his dunk, Horford didn’t just hear Thomas’ loud exhale. He felt it.

“I think that was a big play just because it’s one of those when you start to build momentum, momentum, momentum, and then it’s a great read by Isaiah,” Horford said. “He threw it up, we finish it and it’s at that point that, you know, the other team, it hits them a little bit. And we just let our emotions out. But then we got refocused again. We knew that obviously the job’s not done, but we’re getting close to where we want to get to.”

Advancement to the second round of the NBA postseason seemed not close at all when the Celtics lost the first two games at the Garden. Thomas went home afterward and seemed a bit more at ease when he rejoined the club for Games 3 and 4 on the road, though he said, “mentally and emotionally, I’m not here.”

Four wins later, the Celts have moved on, but, if anything, the confluence of basketball and tragedy will grow more acute in these hours. Following today’s services, Thomas and Ainge will return tonight to Boston, where the Celtics will open the conference semifinals tomorrow at 1 p.m. against the Wizards.

Brad Stevens recognizes the obstacles, both logistical and emotional, but if there’s a fine line that some believe needs to be trod, well, the coach doesn’t see it that way.

“Tomorrow’s a lot more important than Sunday,” Stevens said. “So if it’s difficult, it’s difficult, but it’s just a basketball game. He’ll be ready to play. And if he decides when he gets there it’s too much, then that’s OK. That’s fine.”

Horford, too, had things in perspective.

“I think sometimes we lose sight of the important things in life,” Horford said, “and you appreciate life at the same time, and you don’t take for granted any of the moments. It was a rough couple of days for us to start the playoffs. The team wasn’t ready. But after that second game going into the third, I feel like we were in a better place, for whatever reason, and that helped us, you know, get over the hump.

“I feel like (Thomas) has grown. We all have in a way, with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way.”

It was fitting last night that when Thomas played well and contributed five rebounds, six assists and leadership, but hit just 4-of-11 shots on the way to 12 points, that longtime friend and fellow Tacoma, Wash., native Avery Bradley would handle most of the scoring slack with 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

“I know it’s going to be hard on Isaiah, but it’s our job as his teammates, as his brothers, to make sure we’re there for him,” Bradley said. “One thing I know about Isaiah is that his mindset is to play for his sister, continue to play the way that he’s playing and just have fun and appreciate every day that he’s able to wake up and all the little things for him. I know that’s really important. He looks at life different. I’m just . . . I look up to him. The way he handled this situation, I respect him a lot. He was able to go through that and still be here for his team and play at a high level, so I really appreciate Isaiah.”

Bradley wanted to accompany Thomas and Ainge.

“Because of the time of the game on Sunday it makes it difficult for me to be there,” he said. “But my family will be there to support Isaiah. Tacoma is small. We all know each other. My family will be there for me. I think it’s going to be more of a celebration. My mom passed away two years ago, and he was there to support me. It happened during the season. It’s hard right now. All you can do is know they’re in a better place, use it as motivation to go out there and live every day for them and play every game for them.”

Because they got it together emotionally and on the floor, the Celtics now have more games to play this season. As Stevens said, they’re just games, but they are, as well, opportunities to support each other through what remains a most difficult time.