CLEVELAND >> Isaiah Thomas pushed his undersized body — and the Boston Celtics — as far as he possibly could.
Battling a hip injury the past two months and then playing through the darkest period of his life, he proved an inspiration while dedicating his performances to his late sister.
Thomas left it all on the floor, and paid the price.
The All-Star point guard’s season is over, and his team is likely to soon follow. The Celtics trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals heading into Game 3 on Sunday night.
Thomas didn’t travel with the Celtics, staying in Boston so he can visit hip specialists. Before Sunday’s shootaround, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Thomas may need surgery for the hip impingement, which has been bothering him since March.
The injury was so severe that Stevens said he was surprised Thomas was able to play Game 7 of Boston’s semifinal series against Washington. Thomas got through the first half of Friday’s 44-point loss in Game 2 before the team shut him down to avoid further injury.
“There were times where you could see he was really struggling, but probably nothing like the other night,” Stevens said. “I thought the first half he was really hurting, really didn’t have any bounce, didn’t have any push. And it’s one of those things where being around him for the last couple of years, he wants to play through any and all circumstances.”
Steven said Thomas pleaded with team doctors to let him back on the court despite the Celtics being down by 40 points in the third quarter.
“I think the best part about it from all of our standpoints was how inspiring it’s been to have a guy that’s done all this and accomplished all this and is willing to literally go out and leave it all out there,” Stevens said.
It’s a jolting finish for Thomas, the speedy 5-foot-9 guard with the devastating hesitation dribble and uncanny ability to maneuver around much bigger men for layups. For a time, his story captivated the basketball world.
On the eve of the postseason, Thomas’ sister, Chyna, was killed in a single-car accident outside Tacoma, Washington. Thomas received an outpouring of support across the NBA, but it was on him to keep the top-seeded Celtics moving ahead.
His time with teammates, as well as practices and games, became sanctuaries, an escape from his pain. He flew home for her funeral and then scored 53 points in a home playoff win over Washington on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday.
Stevens said he’s never been around a player with Thomas’ heart.
“He’s had a remarkable, remarkable year through some really difficult circumstances,” Stevens said. “We all draw inspiration from his presence, knowing what he’s going through. … The whole story is pretty remarkable.”
Stevens said Thomas was “really down” on Saturday and several of the Celtics said they’ve been staying in touch by texts.
“He’s been a big role for our team,” forward Al Horford said. “He’s the heart and soul, and he gives us so much and he’s given us so much all year and I know for him not to be able to play it’s because of something that’s not good. He gave us everything he had.”
And now the Celtics stagger forward without their leading scorer and best playmaker into Quicken Loans Arena to take on the Cavs, who throttled them twice in Boston and have won 13 straight postseason games.
Stevens said Marcus Smart will start at point guard in Game 3 and Amir Johnson will likely return to the starting lineup for Gerald Green, who started Game 2.
The challenge got more daunting, but Horford said the Celtics can honor Thomas by playing the way he does.
“We need to rally around and play for him and play for our team,” he said, “because our season is on the line.”