BOSTON — Jaiden Thomas is five years old now, so his priorities differ from those of his father, who is all of 28. Though Isaiah Thomas was dragging before Game 2, Jaiden wanted to have a fake press conference. The microphones were set up and live since both coaches were scheduled to speak about an hour later. When Isaiah used one to ask Jaiden how he would guard John Wall, noting how fast the Wizards point guard is, Jaiden had the answer.
“I would get really fast shoes,” Jaiden said.
His dad laughed. For two weeks, Thomas has been exhausted, caught between smiles and misery, ducking in and out of the distraction of basketball and the realization his sister, Chyna, would have turned 23 years old Tuesday if she had not died in a car accident right before the postseason began.
After the news, two questions followed: Will Thomas play? If so, how well? Both have been emphatically answered. First in the opening round against the Chicago Bulls, when Thomas received the news and wept during introductions of Game 1 against Chicago. Then, in the first two games against the Washington Wizards. He has scored 86 points to help the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead. Thomas scored 53 of those Tuesday night, one off the Boston record for a single-game postseason high, which is held by John Havlicek, who scored 54 points in 1973. Through two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Washington cannot figure out how to stop Thomas from further entering Boston sports lore when Game 3 happens Thursday night.
“What he has gone through and what he has been able to do, you really can’t explain,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Wednesday. “I wouldn’t do it any justice if I put it into words. But, what you’re seeing is pretty incredible. I hate the fact it’s against us the last two games. The challenge for us, and the thing I really enjoy about my job, is we get to find a solution. Whether we do or not, we still have to keep searching, keep exploring and keep challenging and keep trying to figure out ways to stop that guy.”
Jaiden wandered from the press conference table and began playing with the television cameras. When he reached out for a handle, Isaiah instantly flipped into dad mode. “Don’t touch that!” Talking reminded Thomas that his mouth was still sore. Otto Porter’s elbow popped one of Thomas’ front teeth out in Game 1. Dentist visits on Monday and Tuesday provided a new one. Thomas used to make fun of his college teammates for their missing or misaligned teeth. An old college teammate was a particular bruiser, and his elbows were a common cause of tooth removal in practice. That same player, Jon Brockman, was part of a trade that provided the Sacramento Kings the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft. They selected Thomas with it.
Thomas was tired before the lights came on Tuesday. April 29, he was in Tacoma, Wash., to deliver the eulogy at his sister’s funeral. Game 1 began the next day at 1 p.m. Eastern. Tuesday afternoon, he was still searching for a way to beat back the wrong emotions and pretend fatigue didn’t exist while tracking Jaiden who tends to walk in any direction he feels necessary. Asked if he had been getting any rest, Thomas said, “Trying.”
A few hours later, he was introduced — “I-T, Iiiisaiahhhhhh Thomas!” The introduction was the last of pregame and erroneous. Boston’s public address announcer claims Thomas is 5 foot 10. A pencil mark on the wall would show he could well be less than 5 foot 9. No matter his real height, he proved unstoppable.
That he was drafted last in 2011, sent out by Sacramento and Phoenix — two wobbling franchises which combined for 56 wins in 2017 — and has become a beacon in Boston began an unlikely legacy. Add tragedy, even the unexpected dentistry, and what Thomas is doing this postseason becomes more difficult to explain. Thomas scored 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in Game 2. Washington scored 30.
“Tried a lot of different things with him,” Brooks said. “Only thing we haven’t tried, we haven’t tried the triple team. We tried to put two on him. We switched. Multiple defenders.”
Washington, like most teams, thinks it can hunt and punish Thomas when he plays defense. John Wall posted him up multiple times to open Game 2. Bradley Beal did the same. With 9:40 to play in the first quarter, Thomas had two fouls. He did not come off the floor. He was not called for another foul.
That was a failure by and an indictment of Washington. Thomas has been provided the opportunity to stand away from the ball, often guarding Kelly Oubre, a second-year player with a truncated offensive package.
“I just got to make sure he’s active,” Oubre said Tuesday. “Just make sure he’s always moving when he’s defending. On the defensive end, all he’s doing is resting his legs to go play offense.”
Washington lacks a player who can consistently punish Thomas offensively. Brooks has tried scorer Bojan Bogdanvoic to moderate effect. Oubre has shot well from behind the 3-point line, but does not have the arsenal to hammer Thomas.
Boston coach Brad Stevens has been masterful in hiding Thomas on defense. Stevens turns to Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart to torment John Wall and Bradley Beal. Thomas rarely has to fight that fight.
On the other side, Thomas is able to be a four-level scorer, a model almost impossible to stop. Thomas takes and makes pull-up 3-pointers in transition and off high screens. If he is cut off after turning the corner, he can stop and score from midrange. Should he make it all the way to the rim, Thomas is adept at contorting his small, stern frame to get his shot off no matter how big his opponent. Foul him and a 91 percent shooter is sent to the free throw line. Digest where he has made shots from in the first two games: 10 3-pointers, nine midrange makes, 10 at the rim, 18 free throws.
Thomas has practiced his remedy for his lack of height all his life since a growth spurt never came. He has always been shorter than the rest of the players on the floor; smaller when he scored 51 in a high school state tournament semifinals game, when he played all 45 minutes and scored 28 points to give The University of Washington a then-Pac-10 Tournament title with an overtime buzzer-beater, all six of his seasons in the NBA.
“I think first of all, anybody who makes it into the league at the size he has made it and has success — it doesn’t happen often, but I think the common denominator for every smaller player to make it, they don’t know how small they are,” Brooks, who was a 5-foot-11 point guard in his day, said. “They don’t look at other players and say, ‘This guy’s a lot taller than me.’ They don’t have that, it’s not even in their DNA, and I’m sure he’s the same way. You go out there and compete.”
Thomas has controlled the series offensively for two games. He has shut out the heartache, fatigue and Washington’s defensive plan. What, if anything, can the Wizards do to stop him?