By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It didn’t take very long for Marcus Smart to make his impact on the Celtics upon his return.
Making his triumphant return following a six-week absence after undergoing surgery on his right thumb, Smart put his fingerprints all over Boston’s Game 5 win over the Bucks on Tuesday night. When he entered with 4:08 to go in the first quarter, to a rousing ovation from Boston fans, it was as if the Celtics were letting a bulldog off its leash. It took Smart all of 30 seconds to hit the floor, sticking his nose in the passing lane to break up a pass intended for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Even though he was played with a brace over his surgically repaired thumb, the word “timid” just isn’t in Smart’s vocabulary.
“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, because you just start thinking about the injury,” Smart said after the game. “Things are going to happen it’s the game of basketball, it’s part of the game. If it’s supposed to happen, it’s supposed to happen, so just keep playing.”
His early dive to the floor was just one of a bouquet of hustle plays Smart would produce throughout Boston’s 94-87 win. And it should come as no surprise that the Celtics played their best defense of the series with Smart back in the mix. After letting the Bucks hit over 50 percent of their shots the last two games (including 57 percent in Game 3), the C’s held Milwaukee to just 37 percent on Tuesday night.
It wasn’t all Marcus, with Semi Ojeleye holding Antetekounmpo in check after receiving a surprise start from Brad Stevens (The Greek Freak scored just 16 points off 5-for-10 shooting). Al Horford had the best all-around game with 22 points and 14 rebounds, and Terry Rozier shook off his woes from the last two games to score 16.
But with the team in need of an energetic injection after dropping two straight, Smart was there to administer it. He dove for loose balls, bumped bodies with any Buck looking for an easy path to the basket, and even swatted away what would have been an easy dunk for the 7-foot Antetekounmpo.
Smart leaves a lot to be desired on the offensive end, and he shot just 2-for-7 from the floor. Five of his nine points came from the free throw line. But his hard-nosed play is infectious, and it feeds the entire team.
“He’s kind of like the soul of our team,” said Horford. “Everything that he brings, his toughness, his unselfishness, he’s a hard-nosed player and we fed off his energy tonight.”
“He makes you want to play, get out there, and go to war,” added Rozier.
The 24-year-old never gives up on a play, and the perfect summation of Smart’s impact came with 35 seconds left in the game. The Celtics were holding on to a five-point lead at the time, and it looked as though Smart was about to commit a potentially-costly turnover for Boston. He was met by both Thon Maker and Eric Bledsoe as he brought the ball up the floor, lost his footing and went crashed to the court. The ball was loose and up for grabs.
But instead of coughing it up, Smart secured the win for Boston. With Bledsoe, Maker and Antetekounmpo diving on and around him, Smart was somehow able to corral the loose ball. Amidst all the arms, he was able to hit Horford with a no-look pass (he had a hand blocking his vision) for an easy, game-sealing layup.
That play will go on the stat sheet as an assist, Smart’s fourth of the night. But as Celtics and NBA fans have learned in his four years in the league, the defensive savant is so much more than what you see in the box score.
“You can look at stat sheets all you want; with Marcus it just doesn’t tell the story,” Stevens said after the win. “It’s his energy, it’s his emotion, it’s little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays like diving on the floor and flipping it to Al. The blocks, you know coming over when Shabazz Muhammad was really rolling and going up vertically and challenging his shot, making him miss. Those are huge plays, and we have other guys that are making them when he hasn’t been here. But he makes them every night. He makes them every night that he plays.”
With their bulldog back, the Celtics look like a rejuvenated bunch, one that is now a win away from advancing to the second round.