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BOSTON — Isaiah Thomas suffocated on Tuesday night in Atlanta. Two, three, four Hawks defenders clogged the paint with each of Thomas’s drives, sealing off his airspace and forcing a dismal 4-for-15 shooting performance. A disheartened and battered Celtics roster, which is down defensive stalwart Avery Bradley and stretch-five Kelly Olynyk, returned to Boston shortly after with the wrong end of a first-round sweep looming ever possible.
All Thomas needed was ample space to penetrate. Pre-Game 3 text messages from Allen Iverson and Isiah Thomas reaffirmed Isaiah Thomas’s darting dashes to the rim would eventually prove fruitful.
“Allen Iverson just said to keep fighting,” Thomas said. “Now it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home.”
He responded with a career-high 42 points in the Celtics’ 111–103 Game 3 win, bursting out of the gates with a 16-point first quarter, more than double the Celtics’ production in the opening frame of Game 2. It was nothing short of an Iverson-esque playoff performance.
“[His green light] can’t get any more greener,” head coach Brad Stevens said. “He can shoot it whenever he’s open or whenever he thinks he’s open ... I’m rolling with him. Everybody in that locker room is saying the same thing.”
Iverson’s legend truly began once Larry Brown slated him as the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting shooting guard. Stevens unleashed Thomas’s career performance with a new starting lineup, inserting Jonas Jerebko at power forward for Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner at shooting guard to stretch the floor and allow Thomas to run wild off the ball. The five-man unit had only logged 33 possessions together during the regular season, Stevens said pregame.
Jerebko capped a wild Celtics opening possession by soaring from out of nowhere to slam home a missed jumper. Turner directed traffic from the top of the key as Thomas scurried around the perimeter and slithered around two, sometimes even three, screens. He’d catch dribble handoffs and explode off picks like a halfback bursting through a hole punched by a giant offensive line. “He had a little pep in his step,” Hawks small forward Kent Bazemore said.
Thomas repeatedly knifed through the same Hawks defense that bottled him up only three nights ago. He met Atlanta’s bigs at the rim floating like an unpredictable feather, forcing the likes of Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Mike Scott to mistime his ascension toward the rim. He bounced off their burly shoulders only to soar higher, like middle schoolers launching off their friends’ backs in an effort to mimic Air Jordan.
“He got 15 free throws so that’s a problem right there,” Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Maybe [we need to be] more disciplined on pump fakes. We just got to continue to make every shot he makes difficult.”
The Boston crowd serenaded Thomas with MVP chants during each of his trips to the free-throw line. He dapped New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who was sitting courtside, following an acrobatic and-one finish during the Celtics’ 19–6 opening run. With 1:53 remaining in the contest, Thomas sized up Dennis Schroder, rocking back and forth as Iverson often did as the shot clock wound toward zero, before draining a back-breaking 30-footer to give Boston a 108–101 advantage. He snatched a crucial steal with 42.9 seconds left that all but clinched the victory. It was his night.
“I try to score 40 every game,” Thomas said with a smile. “I just want to follow in the footsteps of all the Celtics greats and I know that starts by winning.”
Thomas’s performance was complemented by a barrage of threes that Boston desperately needed. The Celtics shot 5 for 10 from deep in the opening quarter, matching the team’s total for all of Game 2. They poured in 11 total triples on 34.4% shooting.
Atlanta uncharacteristically failed to counter. Kyle Korver drained five of his nine three-point tries, but his teammates struggled to the tune of a woeful 4 for 27 from deep. Stevens’s smaller, more malleable lineups with Jerebko at the four proved capable of switching on the perimeter and flying out to Atlanta’s weak-side shooters. A closing unit of Thomas, Turner, Smart, Jae Crowder and Jerebko wreaked even more havoc on the Hawks’ offense. The typically poised “Spurs East” slogged to the finish line rather than crescendo toward a grand finale.
As brilliant as Thomas was and as momentous a victory it truly is for the Celtics to avoid slipping into a 3–0 series hole, uncertainty still lingered in TD Garden following the final buzzer. Thomas struck Schroder in the face during the second quarter and, while it wasn’t reviewed during the game, the league office will undoubtedly take a closer look before Game 4 tips on Sunday with the very likely possibility that Thomas could face suspension.
“[Coach Budenholzer] read us a long memo before the playoffs about what happens when you throw a punch," Korver said.
Thomas assured the incident was inadvertent. The Celtics will likely pray Adam Silver agrees.