Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart is hard to miss. His jump shot can be an amusement park ride. He will occasionally attempt an alley-oop pass from midcourt. He spoke earlier this month of the apparent brutality of a playoff game as a “real dogfight — scratching and clawing, biting, blood, everything.” He dyes his hair green.
It’s all part of the colorful package, and on Thursday night, Smart demonstrated his role as the defensive agent of chaos during the opening possession of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.
Smart was defending Jimmy Butler away from the ball, near the top of the perimeter, as the Heat’s Bam Adebayo drove to the basket. Smart reached for the ball, unhooked it and dove to collect it at the foul line before sliding it forward to Jayson Tatum for a quick breakup and the first points of the game.
Of course, one game doesn’t define anything, especially in a post-season series. But that play — a clean theft before the Heat could even take a shot — seemed to hint at all to come during the Celtics’ 110-97 victory that extended their season. The Heat led the series 3-2. Game 6 is Saturday in Miami.
The Celtics, the No. 2 seed in the East, forced 16 turnovers in Game 5. They threw a full-court press to the Heat coming out of timeouts. They led by 24 points. In the fourth quarter, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra paced in front of the visitors’ bench with his hands on his hips, and Butler, who finished with just 14 points against a host of defensemen, looked tired.
“I wanted to get us started,” said Smart, who checked out to an ovation after scoring 23 points. “I wanted to come in and give my team some energy, especially against a team like Miami.”
He added: “We knocked tonight.”
The pressure is squarely on the Heat for Game 6. They would certainly be happy with the return of Gabe Vincent, their starting point guard, who missed Game 5 with a sprained ankle. But just in case anyone thinks they’re reeling, Butler offered a Namath-esque guarantee at his post-game press conference.
“We can and will win this series,” he said. “We’ll just have to shut it down at home.”
Not too long ago, the Heat had all the momentum. In fact, at the start of the third quarter of Game 4 on Tuesday, they appeared to be closing in on a four-game sweep. There was one possession in that game as three offensive rebounds led to a 3-pointer from Max Strus, extending Miami’s lead to 9 points in front of a home crowd ready to celebrate a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics could have crumbled into Biscayne Bay like a sandcastle. But a funny thing happened: They promptly went on an 18-0 run. The Heat’s zone defense was no longer such an enigma. No longer were the Celtics’ 3-point shots going in and out. And no longer did the outcome of the series appear to be a foregone conclusion following the Celtics’ 116-99 victory that sent him back to Boston.
Several Celtics cited the importance of a team meeting between Games 3 and 4, which came at a time when almost everyone outside their locker room thought their season was toasted. Coach Joe Mazzulla asked questions if he had lost his team. Tatum and Jaylen Brown came under scrutiny for their inconsistent play. Broadcasters joked about impending trips to Cancun.
“I mean, Game 3, that was as low as you can be,” Tatum said. “The beauty of being so low is that you can only play better. It’s only up from there.”
Following Thursday’s win, Mazzulla said one of his aides had provided valuable perspective.
“The seasons are like nine months and we just had a bad week,” said Mazzulla. “Sometimes you have a bad week at work. We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we stick together and fight like crazy to keep it alive, and the guys really come together.
The Celtics make a habit of digging holes — they trailed the Philadelphia 76ers, three games to two, in their conference semifinal series — before MacGyver worked his way out. Smart acknowledged that the Celtics may have been too lax in the way they approached their series with the eighth-seeded Heat.
“They’re sneaking up on us and got us,” said Smart, who was asked to explain. “That’s the problem with sneaking up on someone: they can’t know you’re coming. So that’s what happened. We didn’t know. We didn’t see it, and they got us. It wasn’t like we were trying to have that mindset. It’s part of the game. It’s part of life. It’s part of the rollercoaster of playing in the NBA.”
Now the Celtics are halfway toward one of professional sports’ most curious and seemingly unbreakable streaks. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers became the 150th team to (briefly) try and (unfortunately) fail when the Denver Nuggets won them in the Western Conference Finals.
As for the Celtics, Smart hit the brakes to look beyond Game 6.
“First of all, we have to worry about one – the next game, not two games,” he said.
On Thursday, Smart was a kinetic force. He connected on back-to-back 3-pointers for an early 10-point lead. He started the first half with a steal and also broke it down with one, pushing the ball away from the Heat’s Caleb Martin. He defended and scored, grinning and frowning, finishing with five steals while shooting 7 of 12 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3-point range.
“He’s just an emotional key for us,” said Mazzulla. “When he’s locked up and playing both sides of the ball at a different pace, it kind of gives us our identity and our lives.”