CLEVELAND – Gone but definitely not forgotten.
Isaiah Thomas, out for the rest of the playoffs with a right hip injury, wasn’t in the Q Arena physically, but his presence – and his face via FaceTime – were inside the locker room in the initial moments following their 111-108 Game 3 win over Cleveland.
“We called him right after the game,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “He got to celebrate with us a little bit. It’s sad that he’s not here. We wish he was here with us. We just want him to get better.”
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens added, “I didn’t even realize that had happened until later on. one of my first text messages was from Isaiah. He’s hurting not being out there but he’s completely invested, for sure.”
He initially suffered the injury on March 15 at Minnesota, but re-aggravated it in the first half of Boston’s Game 2 loss to the Cavs. Less than 24 hours later, Thomas was deemed out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Instead of Thomas being the rock of sorts that the Celtics lean on with his play, he has become their rallying cry for the remainder of the playoffs.
“All we can do is play hard for him,” Bradley said. “He was excited with the way we played. We’re a family. Other guys got an opportunity to step up for us. Marcus (Smart) had a big game for us. It could be somebody else next game.”
Smart led the Celtics with a career-high 27 points which included a career-best seven 3’s going down.
And most important, the Celtics avoided going down 3-0 which would have all but sealed their fate in this series considering no team in league history has ever come back for a 3-0 series deficit.
Doing so without Thomas, the Celtics’ leading scorer and the top regular season scorer in the Eastern Conference, made the win all that more impressive for Boston.
“It meant a lot,” Horford said. “We know, Isaiah gives us so much and gave us so much this year. For him, we definitely wanted to come out and fight for him and our season and our team. It felt good to keep believing despite being down big. Just felt good to win the game and bring life back to our locker room. Because going down 3-0, that’s a death sentence pretty much. This was big.”
Not only to the Celtics players but also to Thomas who also texted head coach Brad Stevens full of excitement following Boston’s surprising win.
“He was excited,” Horford recalled. “He was ecstatic. I know he wishes he was here being part of it. We just need to keep doing it for him and our group and doing the best we can.”
CLEVELAND -- Back in 2009, a team official with the Pistons was trying to sell me on the idea that Jonas Jerebko, selected by Detroit in the second round that year with the 39th overall pick, was different.
Big men from Europe back then had a reputation for being more finesse than forceful when on the floor, guys who would rather shoot than shove.
“This kid, he’s different,” the official told me at the time. “He doesn’t mind mixing it up.”
While he is often praised for his ability to help stretch the floor with his long-range shooting, Jerebko’s desire to be physical at both ends of the floor is one of his strengths.
As for those who don’t know that’s a big part of his game, Jerebko says, “They probably haven’t seen me play enough.”
That may change beginning with Game 4 against Cleveland.
Boston’s Amir Johnson suffered a right shoulder injury after Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson appeared to have tugged on it while both were going for a rebound in Game 3. Johnson told CSN that he will meet with medical officials sometime today, and is questionable for Game 4.
If Johnson is unable to play, coach Brad Stevens will likely consider putting Jerebko in the starting lineup.
Stevens made a similar move in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Atlanta Hawks, and the Celtics went 2-2 with Jerebko starting.
“I like to compete. I hate to lose, I love to win,” Jerebko told CSN. “So whatever it takes. If you have to play hard, you play hard. You got a lot of tough players out there. You gotta be one of them.”
He was just that in Game 3 as he came off the bench to score 10 points on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting display that included a go-ahead basket in the final minute of play.
“My job is to stay ready,” Jerebko said. “That’s all I can do; control what I can control and stay ready, be in the gym on a day like this and try to get better. Just stay in the gym and always be ready.”
His preparation in advance for big moments made the final minute of Game 3 just another game for him.
Coming out of a time-out with 36.3 seconds to play, Avery Bradley penetrated deep into the paint, which sucked in four Cleveland defenders.
At the last second, he kicked it out to a wide-open Jerebko, whose 22-footer with 30.3 seconds to play put the Celtics ahead 108-106.
“I wasn’t the first option but I knew I was going to be open,” Jerebko said. “I saw Avery looking at this corner and I saw my defender go in so I knew I would get a good shot. I was hoping Avery would kick it out and he did. It felt good.”
And his play has been good for the Celtics, seemingly whenever he has been called upon.
Johnson has seen first-hand how Jerebko has handled his inconsistent role on the eve of him becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“You just have to do nothing but salute him,” Johnson told CSN. “Of just being professional, staying ready and that’s what veterans do; they stay ready and he gave us a big game in this playoff series. You have to respect his professionalism. I’m proud of him.”