By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Frustrating. Exacerbating. Infuriating.
All of those words explain Marcus Smart. They’re feelings shared by his opponents and Celtics fans alike. There is nothing like the roller coaster one goes through when Marcus Smart is on the court.
But for every “NO for the love of God don’t shoot that!’ moment, there are three times as many “how in the heck did he do that?” instances. They’re usually in unison, an oddly intricate orchestra of emotions.
Smart is a frustratingly beautiful player to watch, one nobody can truly explain. But if there’s one aspect that everyone can agree on about the 24-year-old, it’s that he’s a warrior. He’s going to lay it all on the line every time he steps on the floor. And that mentality makes him a winner, which is really the most important description when it comes to Smart.
We had a perfect Marcus Smart sequence on Wednesday night, one that sealed Boston’s Game 5 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers and propelled the team to the Eastern Conference finals. Other players had bigger nights on the stat sheet, but Smart was the clutchest of them all, and in the moments the Celtics needed that clutch gene the most. It wasn’t complete without a few head scratching moments, but it wouldn’t have been a Marcus Smart sequence without them.
It began with the Celtics down by two, 109-107, entering the final minute of regulation. Jayson Tatum drove from the top of the key, and had an open lane thanks to Smart setting a pick on J.J. Redick. Tatum put up a finger roll, which he was putting in with ease throughout the evening. But this one rolled off the rim, and was about to fall into the hands of any one of the three 76ers players standing around waiting for it.
But that was the problem; Dario Saric, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were just standing around waiting for the ball to come to them. Instead, Smart went to the ball, out-leaped all three and put in the game-tying basket.
Smart followed up that hoop by playing some of his patented defense. As Saric was backing him down in the paint (which he had done successfully just a minute before), Smart pulled the chair out from under the Philly forward, causing him to lose the ball. Al Horford picked it up, and when the 76ers cut off any three-point looks for Boston, the ball ended up back in Smart’s hands at the top of the key. With no margin for error, he fired a pass into Tatum under the basket. It was a risky pass, but that’s just how Smart lives. Tatum adsorbed contact from T.J. McConnell and put the ball in the hoop for his 24th and 25th points of the night, giving the Celtics a 111-109 lead with 22.5 seconds left.
If only it were that easy, though. Terry Rozier hit some freebies after an Embiid turnover to put Boston up 113-109, but Redick finally broke free of Smart a few seconds later and drained a three, making it to 113-112 with 3.8 ticks on the clock.
Smart was tasked with getting the ball in-bounds, and found Al Horford. But instead of playing for the intentional foul, Brad Stevens wanted to kill the clock. Horford gave the ball back to Smart, who saw an open lane before being fouled by McConnell, who made a nice recovery to send Smart to the line.
Like everything else with his game, Smart at the charity stripe is an adventure. He was 7-for-11 at that point, and promptly missed his first attempt — the attempt he actually wanted to make. He tried to miss his second, firing it off the backboard and hoping to hit the rim, but as fate would have it, the ball bounced up and in. Marcus Smart, ladies and gentlemen.
People didn’t even have time to pull their hair out before Smart sealed the game. He hustled down the floor and morphed into a free safety, plucking Simmons’ full-court pass out of the air. The Celtics walked off the floor with an exciting, series-clinching victory, one with Smart’s fingerprints all over the biggest plays.
Believe it or not, SportsCenter actually tweeted out the sequence (because they only play LeBron highlights on the actual show):
That is what we call The Marcus Smart Show. The Celtics would be wise to renew it for another few years this offseason.
“When your season is on the line and you’re in the playoffs, you’ve got to do really hard things. He can do really hard things,” Stevens said of Smart after the game.
And if you think we’re just ragging on Smart for his rags-to-riches sequences, his teammates are used to these walks on the tightrope.
“That’s a Marcus Smart sequence. That just describes him so well. He tries to miss a free throw, makes it, gets back, makes the steal, puts his body on the line,” said Jaylen Brown. “He didn’t care if he ran into somebody or if he hurt himself, he was coming up with that ball. … If it came down to anyone coming up with that ball, everybody’s got their money on Smart.”
It doesn’t matter how frustrating it may be to get to the finish line, his teammates know Smart will be there making a big play in the end.
“Smart’s one of those guys where you need a play to happen, you need a loose ball, you need anything and he’s gonna come through,” said veteran Al Horford. “That put-back he had there towards the end when Tatum missed was huge. He seems to be there in those big moments.”
Smart’s impact goes a lot deeper than just that final minute. He finished the night with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals. He was a plus-10 during his 33 minutes on the floor. And throughout the series, he owned a cozy studio apartment in Redick’s head, aggravating Philly’s sharpshooter to the point that he kind of looked like… well… Marcus Smart taking jump shots.
Whatever the Celtics need Marcus Smart to do, Marcus Smart is going to do it. It’s not always going to be pretty, and more times than not, it’s a test on your sanity. Very few players can tickle your emotions like Marcus Smart.
But he’s a giant part of what makes the Celtics go, and now they’re off to the East finals for the second straight season. When they win, Smart is usually in the middle of it. You can question just about everything he does; the risks he takes on D and the shots he takes on offense. But if the the one thing we can all stop questioning is if he’s a winner. That has been proven time and time again, one frustratingly beautiful stretch at a time.