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When Marcus Smart does his thing, anything’s possible for the Celtics

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/16/2018 By Chad Finn

Video by CBS Sports

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The Celtics’ have collected their hard-earned share of stirring victories this postseason. But their 107-94 come-from-behind takedown of the Cavaliers Tuesday night is about as satisfying as a win can be, excluding those that end in a confetti downpour.

The Celtics withstood a tour de force from LeBron James (21 points in the first 12 minutes, 42 overall), as well as helpful contributions from Kevin Love (22 points, 15 rebounds) and Kyle Korver (11 points, all in the second quarter), to overcome four different 11-point first-half deficit and take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Cavs had the locomotive called LeBron, a couple of teammates who could stay on track with him, and a half the roster playing like a caboose.

The Celtics had … more. More determination and discipline, especially on defense. More contributors – seven players scored at least 9 points, with at least three of them (Jaylen Brown in the first quarter, Terry Rozier in the third, and Al Horford down the stretch) taking a lead role at a specific point.

It was the type of win, the type of resilient and yet familiar performance, that allows a Celtics fan to imagine all that is possible. And right now, that feels like anything.

But if there was one player who provided his quintessential performance, packing in all of his admirable attributes into 31 minutes of playing time, it was – and there is no surprise here whatsoever – Marcus Smart.

Smart didn’t shoot well – he was 3 of 9, and the crowd slightly groaned when he teed up a 3-pointer upon checking into the game during a Celtics run in the third quarter. (He missed.)

But he also did all of those Marcus Smart things that matter so much to the Celtics’ culture, toughness and success.

“He just does everything out there on the floor,’’ Love said.

He certainly did Tuesday. Smart scored 11 points, led the Celtics with nine assists (the pick-and-roll game with Horford was on point in the fourth quarter), collected five rebounds (3 on the offensive boards), and made four steals, including a spectacular diving swipe in the backcourt that sent Smart hurtling out of bounds.

He also continued his uncanny knack for leading the Celtics in plus-minus, which happens sometimes even if he doesn’t appear to play that well. Tuesday, the aesthetics of his performance jibed with his team-best plus-21.

This is what he does. A little bit of everything, all delivered with hustle and an edge, usually right when it’s needed most.

“I think Marcus always makes plays at the right time,’’ said James.

Marcus Smart sought on-court justice after J.R. Smith pushed Al Horford late in Game 2 of the Celtics-Cabs series. © Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Marcus Smart sought on-court justice after J.R. Smith pushed Al Horford late in Game 2 of the Celtics-Cabs series.

It’s near impossible to find a perfect historical comparison to Smart in Celtics history. Dennis Johnson has some similar skills, but he was a conventionally superior player. Don Chaney was a defensive whiz, but he wasn’t as rough as Smart. The closest I can get is K.C. Jones.

Smart plays basketball like he’s trying out to be Bill Belichick’s favorite special teams gunner. That mentality comes in handy when the game becomes extra physical, or usually, when he makes it extra physical.

“He’s as tough as they come,’’ said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a true competitor. He matches his intensity with physical toughness. … People talk about him all the time. Sometimes they focus on things that don’t matter. Other times they focus on what impacts winning. We are really glad he’s on our team.”

Collectively, the Celtics don’t back down from a challenge, whether it’s trying to stop James or delivering hardwood justice to an opponent whose aggressive play becomes dirty.

Stevens said before Game 2 that the Celtics were expecting a heavyweight punch from James and the Cavs after their Game 1 loss. James tried to deliver a figurative knockout blow in his dominant first quarter. Later it was Smart who was actually ready to rumble.

With 3 minutes 49 seconds left in the game, J.R. Smith – once cuttingly dubbed by plugged-in NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski as a “soft, spoiled suburban jump shooter” for his silly tough-guy antics by – gave the airborne Horford a two-handed shove in the back.

Horford hit the deck, which prompted Smart to bolt toward Smith looking like he intended to deck him as a form of instant retribution. After a couple of minor shoves and a lot of barking – I wonder if Smart mentioned the suburbs – the quasi-rumble was broken up. But Smart said a message needed to be sent to Smith, who received a flagrant foul to punctuate his flagrantly foul performance (no points in 27 minutes).

“That’s not the first time JR has done some dirty stuff, especially playing against us,’’ said Smart. “He’s known for it, especially playing against us. We know that.

“So you know, it’s like a bully, you keep letting a bully keep picking on you, he’s going to pick on you until you finally stand up, and that’s what I tried to do. One of my guys was down, and I took offense to it.”

Smart and the Celtics found a better way than fighting to exact retribution. They ran the Cavs off the court after the incident, ending any glimmer of hope James and his mostly hapless helpers might have had about stealing a win in Boston.

It should be noted, since Smart gets so much grief for his shooting even as he delivers in countless other ways, that he buried a big shot, too. A couple of them, actually, but the most memorable was his 3-pointer with 4 minutes and 40 seconds left in the third quarter gave the Celtics their first lead of the game, 72-71.

The crowd did not groan then. It was too busy roaring.

Related slideshow: Top scenes from the NBA playoffs (Provided by photo services)


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