BOSTON — If ever there was a player you’d want on the floor trying to grab a loose ball amid a gaggle of three opponents scratching and clawing for possession, it’s Marcus Smart. The dude thrives in chaos. When the game gets weird, that’s when you really need Marcus Smart.
Smart didn’t just claim possession in a pivotal fourth quarter play on Tuesday night in the Celtics’ 92-87 win over the Bucks, a win that gave Boston a 3-2 series lead. Anyone can do that if they fight hard enough. He also had the presence of mind to flip the ball to Al Horford who was as surprised as anyone to see it coming his way.
“I didn’t think he could get the ball to me,” Horford acknowledged later. “I thought it was going to be either a jump ball, or it could have been a foul. It wasn’t good once you saw him go down like that. I don’t know how he was able to get the ball out, I just know that as soon as I caught I’m not going to take any chances.”
Horford’s layup off that Smart pass finally gave the Celtics some breathing room in the closing stretch of the game. And Smart’s return to the lineup after recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his thumb gave the C’s some breathing room in their first-round playoff series that is now heading back to Milwaukee.
How many Marcus Smart plays did he make in his return to the Celtics’ lineup? So many that it became tough to keep track of all them.
There was the out-of-nowhere block on Shabazz Muhammad at the rim when Smart raced over from the weakside and went vertical on Bazzy. There was the loose ball that he dove on mere seconds into his return, injured thumb be damned.
“I was always taught coming back from injuries the last thing you want to do is have a mental game going on with yourself, psyching yourself out,” Smart said. “Things are going to happen, it’s the game of basketball. If it’s supposed to happen it’s going to happen. You can’t control it. Just keep playing.”
There was the defense on Khris Middleton, who had shot the lights out in the four previous games, but was held to 23 points on 21 shots. There was the steady hand he brought to the Celtics’ offense, keeping everyone organized and in position. For a guy who loves to create disorder, he also brings a sense of calm.
As the Celtics’ Shane Larkin put it, “That guy is crazy, but he’s unbelievable. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
The Celtics are simply a different team when Smart plays. Never mind his less than stellar shooting or his penchant for turnovers. Good things tend to happen when Smart is on the floor. No wonder Horford calls him the soul of the team.
Like the rest of his teammates, Horford didn’t want to get his hopes up about Smart’s return. But when word spread that it was really happening, Smart entered the locker room to cheers. “They were proud of me,” Smart said.
Smart’s return was an open question for everyone else right up until the opening tip. Brad Stevens played coy in the pregame, and then threw a curveball when he started rookie Semi Ojeleye and moved Horford to the five. Both moves paid dividends.
Ojeleye’s task was defending Giannis Antetokounmpo, a job he was told about just 20 minutes before the game started. Ojeleye used his strength and positioning to knock Giannis off balance and keep him from getting into the paint. The result was only 16 points on just 10 shots.
“When (Stevens) says stay ready, he means it,” Ojeleye said. “He’s done that all year. Everybody’s used to it.”
The smaller lineup also helped unlock Horford’s offense, who responded with a monster 21-14 night. Was there a message to be more assertive?
“Not from me, no,” Stevens said. “The one thing I don’t want Al to do is stop being a good basketball player. He makes the right play. Just keep making the right play. If the right play is a dunk, great. If the right play is a kick-out, great. He makes the right play so often that you don’t want to skew that mindset.”
The Celtics’ mindset has been a difficult thing to discern this postseason. With the loss of Kyrie Irving on top of the season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward, expectations were once again tempered. Add to that the loss of invaluable backup big man Daniel Theis and Smart, and any outcome seemed plausible.
Smart’s return helps balance the equation. He’s not just an extra guy to throw into the rotation; he’s a difference maker. It doesn’t matter how many points he scores, or how many rebounds he grabs. There’s no column in the box score for Marcus Smart plays, but on Tuesday there were enough of them to protect homecourt.
“You can look at stat sheets all you want with Marcus, it just doesn’t tell the story,” Stevens said. “It’s his energy, it’s his emotion, it’s the little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays like diving on the floor and flipping it to Al. We’ve had other guys that have been making them when he isn’t here, but he makes them every night that he plays.”