Coming off a clutch performance in game four, Isaiah Thomas’ two sons, James, and Jaden, called him the “greatest player in the NBA.” Moments before that, the point guard said that he has the honour of playing in front of the greatest fans in the world.
Fast forward two nights, Thomas was playing in front of a hostile crowd at the Philips Arena in Atlanta, struggling to find a groove. The Celtics were blown out by a final score of 110-83 and the fifth year guard mustered a series-low seven points on three-of-12 shooting. The Hawks set several traps and double teams to shut down Thomas, something he called his teammates out on.
"It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates," Thomas told NBA TV after the game five loss. "Other guys have to step up and make plays.”
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To make matters worse, Thomas suffered a sprained ankle in the fourth quarter. He gingerly sprinted to the locker room and did not return. Trailing the Hawks in the series 3-2, Thomas – who is averaging 24 points this series despite Tuesday’s effort -- was adamant about his availability tomorrow night.
"I'll be alright... I'm definitely not sitting out,” Thomas said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to play.”
Thomas’ availability may be uncertain but the track record for home teams in this series is not. All five games have gone the way of the hosts; if that holds true, the Celtics will force a game seven if they win this Thursday.
The TD Garden crowd in Boston has been a passionate, rowdy bunch this series. Loud cheers, vehement boos and even vulgar chants powered the Celtics to win games three and four. It even impacted some Hawks players’ efforts, including Paul Millsap during his historic 45-point, 13-rebound, and four-block performance last Sunday.
“It’s tough, especially being on the road,” Millsap told GiveMeSport during a press conference after game four. “The fans are booing you, talking to you the whole game...it’s tough to block it out.”
Millsap, for the most part, was able to silence the crowd with his prolific scoring. However, point guard Dennis Schroder couldn’t come near the ball without the crowd erupting with loud boos – a carbon copy of Thomas’ experience in game five.
Ironically, after Thomas and Schroder’s scuffles in game three, both men went on to score seven points as the visiting player in the two following games.
However, returning to Boston could be the deciding factor in the Celtics prolonging the series.
“I think that obviously playing here [TD Garden], and the crowd, and the excitement levels, and the enthusiasm levels help us greatly,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said following the game four victory.
Marcus Smart, whose effort has helped a partially depleted Celtics roster, also believes that the energy inside TD Garden has helped the team. In game four, they overcame a 16-point deficit to defeat the Hawks 104-95 in overtime.
Feeding off the energy of the crowd, Smart didn’t hesitate to use the vibe to the team’s advantage – especially in overtime of a playoff game on the team’s home turf.
“I was telling the team when Teague lost the ball going up for the final shot ‘just keep playing, we got this, we’re going to win this game'," Smart said.
“I really believe that and I think my teammates believe that also.”
By the same token, the Atlanta crowd has been vocal during home games too. For instance, Kent Bazemore’s explosion for nine points in under two minutes in game five began a 28-8 run that culminated with the Celtics’ third loss of the series.
While the homecourt advantage has been prevalent, sometimes it’s just a matter of going on a prolonged run and that could end up being the difference.
"You get the crowd behind you, and then you make a few in a row," Bazemore said. "The rim gets bigger and bigger."