BOSTON — In what continues to be transcendent of the proverbial and popular sports aphorism, the four teammates who share the court with Marcus Smart at any given time during a game reflect that of a brotherhood for the Boston Celtics guard, his upbringing with his four real-life brothers helping to shape the toughness and spirit that has become an endearing hallmark to the Boston faithful. Unlike what is normally expected from the baby of the family, however, Smart, on his way to putting another indelible imprint on another Celtics’ home playoff victory, showed unyielding selflessness in allowing his on-court brothers to thrive and move one step closer to an unlikely NBA Finals appearance.
Smart was one part provider, one part thief, one part human crash-test dummy and one part enforcer rolled up into one during the Celtics’ come-from-behind 107-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a two-games-to-nothing series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Channeling former Celtics greats like Frank Ramsay, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, who all made seismic impacts while coming off the bench during championship seasons, Smart torched the Cavaliers for 11 points, nine assists, five rebounds and four steals (with no turnovers) in 31 minutes of play.
As LeBron James did his best to bully tonight’s contest, scoring 21 of his 42 points in the first quarter in helping the Cavaliers open up a double-digit second quarter lead, the Celtics, led by Smart, took the fight back to Cleveland, outscoring the Cavs 59-39 in the second half, including a 32-16 stretch in the final 9:15 of the third quarter to overturn a nine-point deficit.
Admittedly, the Cavs pointed to Smart’s game-changing hustle plays as a crucial factor in the game turning on its head. You can say that hustle is in Smart’s DNA, going back to his days growing up in a rough Dallas neighborhood. It’s that same toughness that was on display which proved too much for Cleveland to overcome tonight.
“That’s me. That’s how I was raised,” said Smart in the postgame press conference. “I’m the youngest of four boys. My whole life I had to fight. I had to get down and do things in order to secure my spot in the household. So coming on to the court it’s nothing different. We’re the underdogs. We’re coming in, Cleveland is picked to beat us. We’ve got to come and give energy, extraordinary energy all the time, and I just try to be that spark plug.”
The first significant spark Smart provided on the Celtics’ comeback trail came when Boston was facing its largest deficit of 11 with less than a minute remaining in the first half, when Smart’s pass set up Marcus Morris for a running layup with 52 seconds left in the half. On the ensuing possession, and noticeably limping after taking a fall right before his assist to Morris, Smart rose into the air and stole James’ pass intended for Kevin Love at half court, then fed a wide-open Morris for a dunk. It gave the Celtics four points in five seconds to trim Boston’s deficit to seven by halftime and, more importantly, gave the team the momentum it eventually used to springboard into the lead coming out of the intermission.
Though five of his teammates had more points than him at halftime, Smart’s impact, as per usual, belied what was stated in the box score.
“Well, I think he’s as tough as they come, right; he’s a true competitor,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens of Smart. “He matches his intensity with a physical toughness. We talked about it before the game. People talk about him all the time. Sometimes they focus on things that don’t matter, and the other times they focus on that he impacts winning. We are really glad he’s on our team.”
James, who fell victim to Smart’s thievery and had to deal with the physical nature of his defense in the half court, is all too aware of what Smart brings to the parquet floor – or any floor that he takes while wearing Celtic green.
“I think Marcus always makes plays at the right time,” James said after the game.
The fourth quarter provided more instances when Smart was Johnny-on-the-spot, including a sequence when he recorded an offensive rebound on a tap out after an Al Horford missed three and, on the same possession, scored on a put-back after Jayson Tatum missed a layup to give Boston a 93-82 lead with 6:10 remaining in the fourth.
Three minutes later, it was time for the baby brother to play the role of big brother. On a pick-and-roll, Smart lobbed a pass toward the basket to a rolling Horford, who was set to throw down a dunk before JR Smith pushed Horford in the back in mid-air and sent the All-Star forward tumbling to the ground underneath the basket. Smart immediately confronted Smith, who was called for a flagrant foul, shoving him and getting into a shouting match that only ended when Celtics assistant coaches came from their bench on the far side to restrain him.
Smart earned a technical foul for his trouble, but a little comeuppance from authority was more than worth it in exchange for defending one of his brothers who had been wronged.
“You just can’t allow that to keep happening,” said Smart. “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.”
Cleveland’s resistance finally wilted in the emotional wave the Celtics rode in their comeback, led by the pugnacious and crafty fourth-year guard from Oklahoma State. After the game, the Cavaliers conceded that to beat the Celtics, they have to be more like them.
“I think you can actually take a lot from the Boston Celtics,” said Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds. “You mentioned Marcus Smart earlier. He was a plus-21 in this game. He just seems to do everything out there on the floor. I think we can definitely learn from them, and we have guys that are very capable, too, so we just need them to be themselves.”
What the Celtics can count on every time they step on the court is that Marcus Smart, as confrontational as he is skilled, will always be himself, and Boston’s on-court family will always be better than the sum of its parts.