Since Allen Iverson was “The Answer,” Isaiah Thomas must be “The Question.” As in: “How does someone so small come up so large in moments so big?
It beats me. And he’s beating the Wizards.
A player who stands 5-foot-9 is not supposed to take over NBA games in crunch time. He’s not supposed to carry the team on his back like an ant hauling a picnic basket. He’s not supposed to score 20 points in the fourth quarter and nine in overtime while Washington’s entire team scores 30 points over that span.
But that’s what Thomas did for the Boston Celtics Tuesday night in a 129-119 thriller that left the Wizards behind in the series, two games to none. Thomas connected on 18 of 33 field goal attempts (54 percent) and finished with 53 points.
“A great player had a great game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks told reporters.
A tough player overcame tough circumstances.
He was dealing with a swollen mouth after extensive dental work Monday and Tuesday to repair major damage incurred in Game 1. Prior to Game 2’s tip-off, Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters that Thomas was “in a pretty good deal of pain.” The point guard also was managing an aching heart, as Tuesday would’ve been the 23rd birthday of his late sister, Chyna, who was killed in a single-car accident on April 15.
“My sister wouldn’t want me to stop,” Thomas said during an on-court interview with TNT after the game. “The only thing about it is once I leave this gym, I hit reality and she’s not here. That’s the tough part. But when I’m in this arena, I can lock in and I know everything I do is for her.”
The Wizards had their chances to steal Game 2, specifically John Wall’s 18-foot jumper with three seconds left in regulation and Bradley Beal’s 15-footer off the offensive rebound. Had either shot fallen, Washington would have captured homecourt advantage and placed the pressure on Boston’s young squad.
Stevens’ team lost first-round playoff series the last two seasons before breaking through against Chicago this year. Conversely, the Wizards are in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third time in four seasons. Washington’s road ended against Atlanta last year and Indiana the year before, but the experience figures to help Wall and Beal.
A little rest might help, too.
The backcourt mates logged 47 minutes each and seemed fatigued down the stretch. Wall, who finished with 40 points while engaging Thomas in a scintillating duel, shot 2-of-9 with three turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Beal shot 2-of-7 over those final 17 minutes, playing every single one of them.
Wall acquitted himself in the matchup against Thomas but Beal seemed out of sorts all night.
He missed 11 of his 15 shots and committed a game-high six turnovers. Shortly before halftime, Beal went down and remained there for several seconds after slamming his face into Terry Rozier’s shoulder. He already was playing as if enveloped in fog and the jarring collision made it worse. Beal had a measly four points at the break and finished with 14, hitting just one of nine three-point attempts.
Thomas talked about being locked in for Game 2.
Beal, who didn’t speak with reporters afterward, appeared to be locked out, unable to get into the flow.
Some of his disengagement undoubtedly stemmed from the hands-on deterrence by Boston’s premier perimeter defenders. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley crowded and jostled Beal at every turn, giving him little room to breathe and less space to operate. Judging by his body language and facial expressions, Beal was either discouraged by the physical play, distracted by unknown circumstances or left dizzy by an undisclosed ailment.
Perhaps it was a combination. Whatever the explanation, there wasn’t enough of the resiliency and tenacity that Thomas exhibited.
Granted, the Wizards came oh-so-close to winning anyway in a boisterous, hostile environment. But swiping playoff games on the road requires an extra measure of ruggedness, a level of hardened resistance that usually isn’t mandatory at home.
“We’re not playing tough enough,” forward Markieff Morris told reporters. “We had the advantage late in the game and all we had to do was play tough.”
No one can question Thomas in that area.
A player his height can’t reach the level of success he enjoys without possessing outsized inner fortitude. The Celtics seem to have the upper hand in that category, at least in Boston where they’re now 4-0 against Washington this season. On Thursday, they’ll shoot for their first win this season at Verizon Center and a headlock on the series.
“The Wizards are a really good team,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters. “I don’t know if we figured anything out. We were lucky to win.”
Boston also is lucky to have the NBA’s best little big man. Washington has a major task moving forward:
Solve “The Question.”