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NBA Playoffs: The unsung Celtics heroes of Game 5 win over Wizards

Avery Bradley scored 29 points and Al Horford was nearly perfect from the floor, but it was also Amir Johnson cementing his spot in the starting lineup and Marcus Smart having his best game of the series that put the Celtics in the driver’s seat.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After the Celtics lost Game 4 in another blowout, there was more speculation that Brad Stevens could change the starting lineup yet again after re-inserting Amir Johnson in favor of Gerald Green. Slow starts had plagued Boston in the first three games and it was easy to think, “the team needs some punch in the first quarter, so let’s replace the slowest player on the floor with a young guy.”

In the end, Stevens elected to keep his starting lineup intact with Johnson—a starting lineup that was one of the league’s best in the regular season—and the team responded and stormed out to a 20-8 lead in his first quarter stint. Big Dog would finish the night with a modest 8 points and 5 rebounds in just over 18 minutes, but those numbers don’t belie the importance of having his size and rim protection in the game.

Boston is a small ball team and they’ll usually close with their IT&D lineup in the clutch, but to start games, they’ll go big with Amir at the 5. Think of Johnson as a big hill at the start of a marathon; when you’re fresh and full of energy, the last thing you want to do is tackle a steep incline right off the bat. Against John Wall and the aggressively driving Wizards, Johnson serves as an early road block. Last night, Wall had three easy looks at the rim. All three were misses.

The game’s first bucket, Wall drew Johnson on a switch and instead of driving, he canned a 15-footer and later, missed another mid-range shot on an ICE’d pick-and-roll. On two subsequent drives, Johnson was there on the help and contesting Wall at the rim.

Johnson’s role on the team seems almost more psychological than practical. I don’t have any data to back it up, but my guess is, somewhere in all that analytical data that the Celtics digest, it says that teams are more likely to be aggressive on drives and in fear of getting in foul trouble, defenses are a little more porous to start games. That’s where having a guy like Amir helps and he definitely put his stamp on the Game 5 victory.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

And then there’s the more obvious impression that Marcus Smart leaves on opposing teams. In our pregame roundtable about the need for our bench to step up, I wrote, “Remember Smart’s Game 4 performance (20 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists) against the Hawks last year? He’s been simmering all series against Washington. This will be the Marcus Smart game.”

Smart didn’t exactly light it up shooting 3-for-7 for 9 points, but he almost finished with a triple double with 11 rebounds and 6 assists. Like Amir, his numbers don’t nearly tell the story. After the game, Avery Bradley said:

AB’s not talking about finding the open man and taking the right shot. He’s talking about those plays. Those plays that only Marcus makes.

That lead to Jaylen Brown fouling Ian Mahinmi on a three pointer, but it’s hustle like that that even a guy like Avery Bradley gets up for. Maybe it is a little bully ball (check out this rebound), but Bradley loves it and the fans love it and that’s what makes Smart the quintessential Boston Celtic. Here’s another quintessential Smart play:

There’s so much to unpack here. First, there’s Smart’s defense on Wall. In Washington, despite the big losses, I thought that Smart had figured something out in guarding Wall, knowing when to ride his hip vs. getting his chest in front of Wall’s shoulder. Second, there’s the rebound and quick outlet that leads to the Avery’s fast break dunk.

Amir Johnson’s +6 and Marcus Smart’s +13 will be forgotten in a week, but it was those complementary performances by Boston’s blue collar supporting cast that regained momentum in this series.

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