BOSTON -- Paul Millsap was destroying the Celtics. One by one they had taken their turns guarding him, from Jonas Jerebko to Jae Crowder, with doses of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson thrown in for good measure. And one by one they had been devoured by Millsap, who finally delivered the kind of performance he and the rest of the Hawks had been expecting from their All-Star forward.
Millsap was up to 41 points early in the fourth quarter and Brad Stevens was running out of options. The game and quite possibly the series were slipping away. Stevens, who doesn't do big speeches or grand exhortations, simply turned to his most versatile defender and said, "Marcus. Guard him."
And that's how Marcus Smart, who has defended everyone from Kristaps Porzingis to Russell Westbrook this season, drew the most unenviable task in the building. Smart stayed low. He kept Millsap off the boards and did his work early in the paint, denying prime position. Maybe, as some suggested later, Smart caught Millsap at the right time. Whatever the case, Millsap scored only four points over the final nine minutes of regulation and five of overtime as the Celtics found a way to even the series despite shooting only 42 percent and getting outrebounded along the way.
"You give Marcus Smart an assignment, he's probably going to get it done no matter who he's playing against," said Isaiah Thomas, who scored 28 points and once again carried the offensive burden. "He's a hell of a competitor and you need guys like that to win in the playoffs. He played an unbelievable game tonight."
Truthfully, though, even Smart was a little surprised by the assignment, given that he was surrendering almost half a foot and at least 30 pounds of muscle. But that's how the Celtics roll. If you want to understand what makes this team tick you have to understand that they don't do anything by conventional measures. When the going gets tough, the Celtics get weird. They thrive in chaos and revel in absurdity.
Their best player is a 5'8 wrecking ball of raw nerve and limitless confidence. Their next best playmaker (that would be Evan Turner) has been passed around from team to team and now makes a living by defying analytic models and taking what would be considered the worst shots in basketball in any other normal context, which again, doesn't apply here. And then there's Smart, whose boundless energy and floptastic tendencies exist in a yin/yang battle for control of his game.
"I think I gave at least every coach I've played for a heart attack at least once, but what player hasn't?" Smart said. "You're going to mess up, you're not perfect but it's definitely a line between being aggressive and being in control. You got to determine between the two; you can be aggressive while still in control and I did get out of control a little bit tonight, but for the most part I stayed pretty much in control."
One of Stevens' pet mantras is that he doesn't worry about things he can't control. One would think it would be his natural tendency to try and rein in a player as volatile as Smart, but that would be wrong. Stevens' genius in coaching this team goes way beyond ATOs and cool sets. What he does best is cultivate an environment in which his players test their limits and let their freak flag fly. He lets them play to their strengths and doesn't harp on their weaknesses.
"I think if we affect that, we'd affect the contagiousness of our whole team," Stevens said. "So like, his aggression, his competitiveness, his spirit, our team needs it. So, yeah, there's going to be some times where he might take a shot or whatever the case may be that he'd like to have back, but he does a lot of good things that lead to winning and give you a chance to win. And defensive versatility's at the top of that list."
In addition to his work on Millsap, Smart also defended Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague, which are entirely different assignments. On offense he scored 20 points on 15 shots by eliminating the hurried heaves from behind the arc and attacking the rim. He also had eight rebounds and five assists in a performance that could only be described as Ginobilian.
"Sometimes we got to tell him to calm down," Thomas said. "But more times than not he's comfortable in those situations. Whether he has the ball, whether he doesn't, whether he has to guard the best player on the other team. He's going to be special in this league. He's only 22 years old so imagine in a few years what he's going to be like."
What Smart, Thomas and the rest of the Celtics have done is completely change the course of this series by subverting Atlanta's finely honed process. This has become a series of improvisation and that's where the Celtics are at their most dangerous. Once again the Hawks left a game they could have won looking a bit disheveled. Their late-game execution, or lack thereof, was only the most obvious manifestation of this trend.
As the series shifts back to Atlanta, both teams' tasks are clear. For the Hawks, it's restoring order. For the Celtics, it's imposing their own form of carefully orchestrated madness. Neither team has been able to do so on the other's home floor, and so we are at a stalemate. The first round of the playoffs haven't given us much, but it's given us this and it's been a hell of a thing to watch.
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Health Warning: Isaiah Thomas will break your ankles with a dribble
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