BOSTON — Less than three weeks after receiving the worst news of his life, Isaiah Thomas sat at a podium in the bowels of Boston's TD Garden alongside his five-year-old son, Jaiden. Thomas' 5'9" frame was relaxed, his face calm, as he took his son through a mock press conference, lobbing him all sorts of cliched questions before asking how he'd slow down John Wall.
"Get fast shoes, and I'll catch him. I'll block his dunk," Jaiden, donning a green Celtics jersey with Thomas' name and No. 4 stitched onto the back, responded.
Thomas curled his swollen lips into a smile, the front tooth that had been dislodged in this series' first game by an errant Otto Porter elbow no longer missing. Six hours of oral surgery the day before had melded that wound, and yet when Thomas awoke Tuesday morning, his mouth had blown up and left him struggling to speak.
"He's still in a good deal of pain," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters before Game 2 of this Eastern Conference Semifinals series.
This was Tuesday evening, two hours before tip-off of what turned out to be a raucous and thrilling game, two hours before Thomas took the floor and put on the greatest basketball show of his life, a 53-point performance that helped the Boston Celtics to a 129-119 overtime win and 2-0 series lead and left the Washington Wizards tasked with trying to slow him feeling dumbfounded and the rest of us in awe.
"What else is there to say?" Stevens said of Thomas afterward.
By now you're likely familiar with the story: On April 15, on the eve of the Celtics' playoffs opener, Thomas learned his younger sister, Chyna, had died in a car crash. Her vehicle had careened off the road on Washington's Interstate 5 and smashed into a barrier before veering into a metal pole.
Thomas was heartbroken and angry, like any sibling would be. A religious man, he turned to his faith but struggled to find any solace. He thought about staying home with his family, taking some time away from basketball. Nobody would have blamed him if he did—not Celtics fans, not Celtics players, not the team.
But then Thomas began to wonder what his baby sister would have wanted him to do. She'd always been his biggest fan. Back when he was a star guard for the University of Washington, she'd come to all his games.
"We talked about how much she loved to watch him compete," Raphael Chillious told Bleacher Report Tuesday in a phone interview, "and I told him that when my mom died, the basketball court for me served as a sanctuary, a place where I could run."
Chillious first met Thomas about 10 years ago. He was the basketball coach at the South Kent boarding school in Connecticut, where Thomas spent two years, and then joined Thomas at the University of Washington. The two have remained close ever since, so Thomas knew about Chillious' mother, how she had died when he was just 14, also in a car accident.
If there was anyone who could understand what he was going through, Chillious was that man.
The next day, Thomas stepped onto the court at TD Garden. He was greeted with a standing ovation and showered with love. He scored 33 points. Still, the Celtics lost, and while his body may have been ready to compete, his mind was not.
"You could see at first that he was just barely getting by," Lorenzo Romar, who coached Thomas at Washington, told Bleacher Report before Game 2 in a phone interview. "It wasn't until Game 3 against the Bulls that he seemed to be able to just get lost in the game again."
Since then, after two straight losses to Chicago, the Celtics have reeled off six consecutive victories. Both they and Thomas seem to be getting stronger every night, even though his sister's funeral and other obligations forced Thomas to fly back and forth between Boston and his Tacoma, Washington, home.
On Tuesday, the Wizards threw everything they had at the diminutive guard. They tried trapping him—only to provide him with more seams to probe. They tried going at him on defense and knocking him around—only to rouse him even more.
Thomas, who hit 18 of his 33 shots and went 12-of-13 from the foul line, bobbed and weaved and danced all around the Washington defense. He drilled silky moonbeams off the dribble and sank acrobatic layups in the paint, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he connected for 29 points. Even forcing Thomas away from his favorite left hand didn't work, with Thomas instead accepting the path to the rim before crossing back to his left at the last moment.
"I'm pretty sure he writes right-handed," Chillious said. "I know he's all left playing basketball, but give him a pen, and you'll see that he's actually a righty."
Hard to believe? Perhaps. But then again, so is the whole Isaiah Thomas story.
Never before has the last pick of a draft (which Thomas was in 2011) morphed into an MVP-level player. Never before has a player so small carried such a large load. And rare is it to witness an individual compelled to deal with such raw emotions on such a public stage.
"Today's my sister's birthday," Thomas said Tuesday night from the podium, the same podium where hours earlier he had sat next to his son. "She would have been 23 today. So the least I can do is go out there and play for her."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.