Isaiah Thomas’ resiliency is turning him into a Boston Celtics great

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas celebrates with fans after defeating the Washington Wizards. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)

After climbing their way past the Washington Wizards in a decisive Game 7, the Boston Celtics are going back to another Eastern Conference Finals, behind a superstar made of the same cloth as those who came before him.

Isaiah Thomas had another great performance, recording a team-high 29 points and 12 assists in the victory. Precisely a month after the passing of his late younger sister, Thomas was once again his resilient self, propelling the Celtics to a win in Boston, a blue-collar town, where winning is expected, but the road there is not often easy.

“I’ve never been to the Eastern Conference finals, so this is something off my bucket list,” Thomas said after beating the Wizards 115-105. “We gotta get ready for the defending champs, we know that. The good thing about it is we’ve got home-court advantage, so we’re going to be ready on Wednesday to try to take care of home court. We know it’s going to be tough, but at this point, anything can happen. We really believe that.”

Thomas’ road to where he is now is fitting for a franchise known for its toughness, grit and competitive spirit through adverse situations. That personality has been embodied by their superstars who wore Celtic green, an echelon which Thomas has propelled himself into over the course of the 2017 playoffs.

Before they began, Thomas received the worst news of his life when his younger sister, Chyna, died in a car accident in their home state of Washington. Naturally, Thomas was filled with emotions, mourning his sister’s death.

Understanding the adverse circumstances, it wasn’t expected for Thomas to play, but he did.

Before Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, Thomas was seen crying alongside his teammates during shootarounds. His emotions, and hard work, would translate to a remarkable 33-point performance, but it wasn’t enough to secure them a win.

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Thomas is used to hearing that he doesn’t have quite what it takes. Being a 5-foot-9 guard has naturally caused many to doubt his abilities in a game surrounded by giants, resulting in him being selected with the last pick in the 2011 Draft. Just as he had done many times before, Thomas picked himself back up and proved others wrong.

The Celtics would dig themselves out of a 0-2 hole against the Bulls, with Thomas doing all he could for a team that needed him in order to replicate a style of basketball that had won them 53 games in the regular season.

Watching Thomas, it was obvious that he wasn’t the same. His eyes were teared up, while he looked emotionally and physically fatigued, which was only natural considering he was flying back and forth between Boston and Washington to mourn with his family.

In the words of another Boston legend, Bill Russell: “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”

In Thomas, there is a lot Russell. The undersized centre, who at 6-foot-9, remains the most decorated player in NBA history, is the example all Celtic greats have followed.

When Russell won his 11th and final championship, it was through his own set of adverse circumstances. He was diagnosed with “acute exhaustion”, that stemmed from the treacherous work he had put into his NBA career, along with the efforts he made as an activist against the Vietnam War, to go along with reports of his marriage going under.

That didn’t stop Russell, in the same way it hasn’t stopped Thomas. In the 1969 Eastern Conference FInals, he guided his Celtics out of a 3-1 hole, then propelled them to a Game 7 win against the Los Angeles Lakers in what is known as the “balloon game”.

Every superstar has career defining moments, and they usually take place on the court. For Thomas, it was on the night of May 2, the day his late sister would have turned 23. As usual, Thomas put on his uniform, this time against the Wizards in Game 2 of the East semis. What would follow was a performance for the ages, with Thomas reaching extraordinary measures on his way to a 53-point showcase.

While the pain of losing his sister must have been unimaginable, Thomas was also dealing with his own battle wounds. In Game 1 against the Wizards, Thomas lost a tooth after taking an elbow to the mouth from Otto Porter.

After the blow, Thomas responded with back-to-back three-pointers, but the hit to the mouth also required Thomas to receive dental surgery while under anesthesia. The effects would be at their most severe 36-48 hours later, resulting in a swollen mouth. By that time, Thomas was delivering his greatest performance as an NBA player.

Playing through pain is common in Boston, and is one of the ways to develop a profound level of respect from the fans— something that Thomas had already earned way before he stepped on the court for Game 2 against the Wizards.

Before Thomas, Boston’s hero was Paul Pierce, a man who defied all logic from the moment he stepped into the league. Before the start of his rookie season in 2000, Pierce was fighting for his life after he got stabbed 11 times in a Boston nightclub. One of the wounds reached as deep as 17 cm.

Instead of holding a grudge against the city that had just drafted him, Pierce showed his true character. He played in 48 of the Celtics’ 50 games throughout the NBA’s lockout-shortened season, cementing himself as one of the toughest players to ever step on Boston’s legendary hardwood.

That type of toughness was something Boston had gotten used to in players like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, too. The former, after a pair of ruptured Achilles and undergoing back surgery, continued to dive for loose balls until his career came to an end in 1992. While the latter played through the ‘87 Finals with a broken foot.

Pierce, Bird and McHale all fought through adverse circumstances knowing they shared an identical goal: to win a NBA Championship. Their pain payed off, combining to bring the city of Boston the Larry O’Brien trophy on four separate occasions.

That goal is now shared by Thomas, who has carried the Celtics to their first Conference Final since 2012. But it won’t be easy— they’ll be going against the King of their conference in LeBron James, who has yet to drop a game this post-season.

No matter the circumstances, at this point it doesn’t seem safe to bet against Isaiah Thomas.

“They didn’t give us a chance [against the Wizards]. They didn’t give us a chance when we were down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No. 1 seed, they didn’t give us a chance,” said Thomas after Game 7 against the Wizards.

“They don’t ever give us a chance, and we just keep going; we don’t care about what others say.”

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