For Thomas, the day was bigger than basketball, bigger than the postseason.
Chyna Thomas, 22, died at the scene of a one-car crash on Interstate 5 in Federal Way, Wash., about 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, according to police. And in the 10 minutes that Thomas sat on Sunday, the Celtics missed 12 of 16 and were outscored by 16.
Celtics fans rallied behind Thomas, showering him with a deafening cheer when he was introduced. "We didn't", said Boston'sAl Horford. "Those've got to come on his own time, and then we'll adjust accordingly". He didn't need to carry his squad, as he has so many nights this season; no, on this night, they needed to carry him. "That's the barometer of success in our game, so I feel very honored".
That Thomas played at all was remarkable.
So as much as fourth-year coach Brad Stevens would like to pat his team on the back for claiming the Eastern Conference's top seed, the chase for an 18th banner is all the focus he needs as his team prepares to open the first round against the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls.
"We're a little more confident, we are the No. 1 seed", Thomas said. Because you wanted to talk to him, but you really can't talk to him because he's not talkative right now.
"The fact that he's here shows what kind of man he is", Gerald Green said through tears before the game. Thomas declined to speak with the media after the game. Throughout the day, he was heaped with attention, his private grief spilling into public view.
On his shoes were written several messages, including "Chyna", "RIP Lil Sis" and "I love you". The Celtics rank #15 in points allowed per game and #13 in defensive rating. They were there again when he solemnly walked onto the floor during introductions.
"You know what to expect from Isaiah, know what you can expect from other guys", Butler said.
"He's a hell of a player, but that's always tough to go through".
"The fact that he's even here is just a lot of credit to him".
"I don't think there's any question people have a great affinity for him".
He hit both free throws for a 99-92 lead, and despite a Horford baseline drive coming out of a Celtics timeout, Butler beat his old college teammate, Jae Crowder, off the dribble for a 103-94 Bulls lead.
For a while, it was shaping up to be an emotional triumph for the grieving Thomas, who drew a foul by Rondo on a 3-pointer and made all three foul shots to put Boston up 88-87 with 5:33 left to play. Despite being out-rebounded most of the season, the Celtics still managed to win more games than any team in the East. But they would not hold it.
It was part of a stretch in which he scored seven straight.
Before Game 1 in Boston, an emotional Gerald Green commented on Thomas, noting that he intends to play every minute of this National Basketball Association playoff campaign for "one of my closest friends".