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BOSTON – Marcus Smart made his return to the floor, but it was Isaiah Thomas once again putting the team on his back that gave the Celtics the upper hand.
Thomas has gotten into the habit of creating his own runs to break open stale games, like when he scored nine points in the second half of the second quarter to take it from a tied game to a double-digit lead. Or his eight points in the final four minutes to keep the surging Knicks at a arms-length reach.
While Smart will force Stevens to make some difficult choices when he gets back to game shape, Isaiah is proving to be indispensable.
But Smart’s return comes at a crucial time, with the Celtics riding the momentum of a four-game win streak but sailing into a blitzkrieg of star guards slated on the January schedule. He made some nice plays, including a crucial three in the fourth quarter to stymie the Knicks’ comeback, but he got lost on help defense a few times and didn’t have the explosiveness to catch up.
"I thought he was good," coach Brad Stevens said of Smart in his return after 18 games on the sidelines with a knee subluxation. "Part of the reason why I kept his minutes where they were was just strictly being conservative.
"He played well in those two six minute stints. I thought he did pretty well and [he] gave us a nice lift."
Evan Turner, who hit a three (breaking news), was excited to have Smart back.
"It was great," Turner said. "Marcus is always a ball of energy and I think he played well tonight for not playing live or practicing for a while."
That ball of energy was just glad to be back and contributing to the team emotionally, as he put it pregame.
"I felt pretty good," Smart said after the game." I did a very good job warming up the body. Getting out there felt good to play with those guys again."
Jae Crowder had another solid game all around. His braggadocio hit a high note after the game.
"That’s how you get your swagger back," Crowder said after the win.
Stevens loves Crowder, but pointed out the growing trend that when Crowder is guarding a high-post player, he often gets lost in defensive rotations and switches.
"Jae’s playing at a high level right now on both ends. But we need him to defend the way he is. You know, the thing about Jae that I think Jae has really improved on throughout the years: being in the right place at the right time from a position standpoint because he’s so – he’s a good physical defender when he’s there. And with the rare exception of a few plays, he was really, really good tonight. And you try to make Carmelo (Anthony) work for anything that he can get, and then you’re sick to your stomach when you see him catch it in transition and nobody’s on him, right? Being the player that he is. But those were few and far between."
Kobe Makes One Last Stop in Boston
With Kobe Bryant’s final visit to Boston as a player on deck, the Celtics locker room was excited for the challenge the geriatric scorer is sure to bring. With the young Celtics core growing up idolizing Kobe, it will be interesting to bid him farewell.
"It’s going to suck to see him go," Isaiah Thomas said. "At the same time, if it was the other way around, he wouldn’t care if it was your last game."
"I was brainwashed to be a Lakers fan when I was young," he said. "I grew up on Kobe Bryant and he was my favorite player."
Jae Crowder paid his respects to the legend, "He’s probably the best player in my era, so it speaks for itself what the NBA is gonna miss."
Bryant and the Lakers visit the TD Garden Wednesday evening.