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Boston Celtics

Isaiah Thomas’ struggles an understandable sign of humanity

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) walks past the Chicago Bulls as they huddle during the second quarter of a first-round NBA playoff basketball game in Boston, Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

There’s enough evidence, as excerpted here for SI.com by Jon Wertheim, that people can generally cope fairly quickly from tragedy. As Wertheim explains, an immediate hormonal response soon passes, allowing for a return to “life as we know it,” to function as best we can. That doesn’t define absolutely how people deal with traumatic events, but highlights that resilience in the face of adversity is more common that you might believe.

Boston Celtics star Isaiah Thomas is following that pattern, doing his best while he grieves with the tragic loss of his younger sister, Chyna, who was killed in a car accident on Apr. 15 at age 22. There was a transcendent moment at the start of the Celtics’ first-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls when Thomas hit his first shot of the game, a high-arcing 3-pointer, that led to a standing ovation and the brief hope that he would find solace on the hardwood floor.

Thomas’ play has since understandably suffered, and the Celtics find themselves in an unexpected two-game deficit.

There’s no easy way to explain Thomas’ struggles, particularly when his effort, despite Wertheim’s assertion, seems so herculean. There’s no singular road map to recovery from grief, a process that works differently for everyone. That it’s common to endure tragedy doesn’t erase it, nor does it fully explain the balance that Thomas must adjust to while trying to compete at an unbelievably high level.

Part of what makes Thomas’ recent play stand out is the sharp contrast from his regular-season production. As one of the top scorers in the league, Thomas has been the catalyst behind Boston’s rise to the Eastern Conference standings. While the Celtics had their share of critics, their level of play had been superb. It’s hard to imagine anyone foresaw them being down 0-2 to a Bulls team that struggled just to make the playoffs.

But Chicago has flipped the script, coalescing at the right time while taking advantage of Boston’s sudden disjointedness.

Chicago’s defense has tightened considerably, making things particularly tough for Thomas. He’s still scoring 26.5 points per game (just shy of his 28.9 regular-season average). He’s also shooting at 48.5 percent, which is actually higher than his 46.3 field goal percentage this year. But the Bulls’ guards, especially Rajon Rondo, are challenging Thomas’ 3-point shooting, and the difference has been huge.

Thomas is shooting just 33.3 percent from 3 through the first two games of the series. That’s a significant drop-off from his 37.9 rate in the regular season. Moreover, he’s shooting just 6.0 attempts per game, far less than his regular-season average of 8.5 attempts. His minutes have increased in the playoffs, as well, from just 33.8 per game to 40.0 through two games. Despite more playing time, Thomas is shooting less from the perimeter and at a far lower completion rate.

Rondo has used his superior size to hound the smaller Thomas, but Chicago has expertly rotated on defense to limit shots: 

Thomas has also experienced some rough sledding around the basket thanks to his small stature. He’s only 7-of-15 in the restricted area and has been blocked five times, with the much bigger Jimmy Butler recording two vicious blocks in Game 2:

 

 

Butler also helped limit Thomas during a key stretch of the fourth quarter of Game 1, which in turn broke the entire flow of the Celtics’ offense as the Bulls took control.

Aside from Thomas’ shooting, a connection that Thomas shared with teammates all season long has appeared broken against Chicago. Plays like this are happening much often than you’d expect, and the Bulls have made the most to capitalize on them:

 

Thomas is averaging 5.5 turnovers versus the Bulls, nearly double what he did during the regular season (2.8). His assists have also plummeted, dropping from 5.9 per game to 4.0 during the playoffs despite the increase in minutes.

If there’s an area in which Thomas has taken a positive leap, it’s been his ability to get to the free throw line, where he’s taking 12.5 attempts per game, well over his 8.5 regular-season average. Still, Thomas has shot just 68.0 percent at the line, well less than his average of 90.9 this past season.

The Bulls certainly deserve credit for their recent success, but perhaps no statistic is more telling than Thomas’ issues at the line. Without Rondo or Jimmy Butler to harass him or a sharp elbow from Robin Lopez making things difficult, Thomas’ grief is most palpable. As the T.D. Garden crowd drops to a hush, the quiet sets Thomas up to think, to remember and, most likely, to grieve.

It’s a saddening display and a reminder that Thomas’ efforts are an incredible challenge, despite how likely Wertheim and others might consider it.

Moreover, Thomas, the “little guy” who has carried his teammates all season and seemed unstoppable in the process, has been all-too-human to forget there are things more important than basketball.

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