BOSTON -- Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas arrived at the interview podium following Game 3 of a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday wearing a suit, an indication that he had expected to end his night on the riser in front of the cameras and microphones. As he settled in, a reporter read off all the Celtics legends who have produced 40-plus point games in the playoffs, and Thomas smiled wide when his name was appended to the list.
After two relatively quiet performances in Atlanta, including a particularly frustrating 16-point effort in Tuesday's Game 2 loss, a confident Thomas declared, "The best players figure it out." With help from Celtics coach Brad Stevens' tweaked starting lineup, Thomas responded Friday night with a mesmerizing 42-point outburst while leading Boston to a 111-103 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at TD Garden.
The Celtics trimmed their deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series and have a chance to even things up when the teams meet again in Game 4 on Sunday.
Thomas needed only 24 shots to produce the first 40-point game of his career (he thrice stalled out at 38 in regular-season games). He made 12 of those attempts, the final of which seemingly was hoisted from nearby Malden and essentially provided the dagger after the Hawks had rallied ahead in the second half despite at one point staring at a 20-point deficit.
After taking a second to digest the list of Celtics legends he joined, including the likes of Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce and Jo Jo White, Thomas shifted the focus to why those Celtics legends are so revered.
"I’m just glad we got the win, first and foremost," Thomas said. "But, I mean, that makes me feel happy, just to be in same category of those great players and I just want to follow in the footsteps of all the Celtics greats. I know that starts by winning. And then, other than winning, winning championships. We’re far from that, but I still want to have my name up there, so I’m happy about that."
The 5-foot-9 Thomas, who earned his first All-Star nod this season, has an insatiable thirst to be great. He has repeated often how he wants to be the best player ever less than 6-foot (and has started the long march toward challenging Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy for that perch). Every time he reaches a milestone, he sets an even loftier goal for himself.
And that's why staring at a 2-0 hole after Boston's trip to Atlanta simply didn't sit well with Thomas. Not after the Celtics got swept out of the playoffs last season. He spent the hours leading up to Game 3 texting with some of the most accomplished players in his contacts, including Allen Iverson and that other Isiah Thomas.
"Allen Iverson just said, ‘Keep fighting. They did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta, now it’s time for you guys to take advantage of being at home,'" Thomas said. "Then Isiah Thomas just gave me a few tips that I can’t tell you guys about. He told me what he’d seen and he helped me out a lot."
Thomas made sure to praise both his teammates and Stevens for the on-the-fly tweaks that helped Thomas thrive on Friday night. The Celtics elevated Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner to starting roles for Game 3. Jerebko (11 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, plus-14 in plus/minus) gave Boston spacing and shooting, while Turner (17 points, 7 assists, 5 steals, 1 block, plus-11) provided a ball-handler, which allowed Thomas to work off the ball and generate opportunities on the move.
Thomas had bursts where he was simply sensational in Game 3. He scored 16 points as part of Boston's 37-point first-quarter outburst. During the regular season, Thomas averaged only about seven minutes per game in the fourth quarter, but Stevens brought him back for the final 9:13 with Boston down a point. Thomas scored 11 points on just three shots while delivering the first playoff win for both him and Stevens.
When asked if Thomas had the green light to fire away on Friday, Stevens joked, "Can’t get any more green than playing here. He can shoot it whenever he’s open or thinks he’s open." Stevens maintained that Thomas didn't play much differently than he did in the first two games, but he sort of figured Thomas was poised for a big night.
"He’s a really good player and he’s a really competitive guy, so I’m not surprised when he plays well," Stevens said.
With 11 seconds remaining in Friday's game, Stevens allowed Thomas to revel in his accomplishments, pulling him from the final seconds of the game. A crowd that serenaded him with repeated "MVP!" chants delivered one final standing ovation.
"[Thomas] was great tonight. It's fun to watch," Turner said. "He definitely carried us. To see him put up those type of numbers up in the playoffs is huge. He was terrific tonight, and definitely deserved a standing ovation."
The only negative for Thomas: His arm made contact with the head of Dennis Schroder as part of a chippy first half. Schroder took exception to the hit, the two barked at each other, and they were assessed double technicals on video review (and Schroder posted a now-deleted Tweet after the game questioning the contact).
For his part, Thomas doesn't believe the league will impart further discipline. "I’m not [worried about discipline] because I didn’t mean to hit his head," Thomas said. "He got mad, he was talking. It’s playoff basketball. That’s what it’s about. I’m not going to back down from anybody and he knows that."
The idea that the Celtics could be without Thomas for Game 4 is a crippling thought. But Thomas wasn't about to let it dampen his night.
The best players figure it out and, on this night, Thomas solved any problems he had encountered in Atlanta. And now he resides among a who's who of Celtics legends to have similarly big playoff performances.
"I wasn’t," Thomas said when asked if he was aware of his place on the list. "It’s a great moment, I guess. Just to be mentioned with those Celtics greats. Like I said, it feels even better that we got the win. And tonight was just a game where I just didn’t care what happened. I was out there just trying to make the right play, make the winning play and do what I can to help this team win."