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COLUMN: Small man, big heart



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The Boston Celtics' Isaiah Thomas, right, defends against the Chicago Bulls' Jerian Grant during the first half at the United Center in Chicago on Feb. 16. The Bulls won, 104-103. Tribune News Service / Chicago Tribune Buy Photos

Boston point guard Isaiah Thomas brought the ball past half court with just fewer than nine minutes left in the first quarter of game one of the Celtics-Bulls first round matchup Sunday.

He took a hop-step and tossed the ball underneath his own legs to shooting guard Avery Bradley. Bradley, with the defense closing in on him behind the arc, jump-passed the rock back to Thomas. After two bounces, Thomas grabbed the ball, settled into his shooting motion from way behind the line — right foot, then left — and chucked it.

Swish.

Although the play was less-than-crucial in the context of the series and even the game, it may have been the best shot of the season.

On Saturday, Thomas’ 22-year-old sister, Chyna, was killed in a car crash. On Sunday, Thomas went out there with his sister’s name on his sneakers and played his ass off.

This shot, his first points of the game, brought the TD Garden to its feet as the fans and Boston tried to lift Thomas up from the abysmal times he found himself in.

Thomas has always been an anomaly. A 5-foot-9 player in the NBA is striking, but for him to be even the least bit good is stunning. An all-star and likely All-NBA honoree this season, Thomas has fought the odds and won time and time again.

The 2016-17 campaign has been a godsend for Thomas and the Celtics, but he’ll surely be remembered for how he fought back and suited up for a game during the same weekend his sister tragically died.

He didn’t have to play.

Boston Coach Brad Stevens stressed this constantly in pressers and interviews entering the matchup, but Thomas probably found it comforting to have a schedule and take his mind off of the recent events instead of getting swept up in the 
calamity.

Basketball was an escape for Thomas, even for just a few minutes, and he was brilliant as always.

We should all be rooting for Thomas during the game when he puts up 33 points in 18 shots and when he breaks down on the sideline during the pregame shoot around.

Sports are bigger than what happens on the court or field. It’s a way to cope, a way to come together. Sunday night showed us that. Boston rallied to show Thomas that he was loved and cared for. The Celtics didn’t win that night, but Thomas was the most extraordinary player on the floor.

After hitting that first 3-pointer, the Ringer’s CEO Bill Simmons tweeted, “Lucky enough to be here for this one. That Isaiah 3 was about as loud as I’ve heard at a Celts game.”

The Celtics have won 17 NBA Championships, retired 21 numbers and been an essential part of the NBA since 1946.

It seems appropriate that this play is one of the select few that will stand out in Celtics history.

It mattered just a bit more. It wasn’t about sports. It was about a human being that was hurting and Boston rallying together to show him that he has a second family.

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