Marcus Smart didn’t flinch when JR Smith lowbridged Al Horford out of midair in Game 2. Within seconds he accelerated toward Smith’s face and spared no words of remorse for him at the podium after, comparing him to a bully who had to be stood up to. No punches were needed. Smart had already laid his fist in the game with 1,000+ words of productivity, while Smith finished 0 for 7 from the field.
Smart’s postseason could have transpired on the bench adorned in a jacket alongside Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, where he could not legally approach Smith. It would have provided a reasonable excuse for any playoff shortcoming the Celtics suffered in his absence.
Smart returned for Game 5 of the Bucks series instead, following a second opinion on his injured UCL, and he assisted in Boston in slipping out of that first round in seven games. He stole numerous possessions away from the Cavaliers on Wednesday while the Celtics grabbed an unimaginable 2-0 lead on Cleveland.
“That’s how I was raised,” Smart repeated numerous times in the days following his altercation with Smith. He said his teammates could have done the same. Yet Smart’s fearlessness, developed as the youngest brother in his family, infuses into the Celts’ defensive identity.
While surviving on offense with a 107.7 offensive rating through the postseason, they set themselves apart since defeating the Bucks by allowing 100.5 defensive points per 100 possessions in five games against the 76ers and two victories over Cleveland. That translates to a +8.9 net rating—two whole points above the second-place Rockets in that category and over five above the Warriors.
Smart ripped possessions out of his opponents’ hands through his various means of disruption. His 17 deflections (T-6th), 16 loose-ball recoveries (T-4th), 28 shots contested (24th) and 24 three-pointers contested (T-5th) position him among the postseason’s elite on defense since April 29th.
Stopping threes became more important against the Cavaliers’ spacey offense. Through rounds 1 and 2, the Celts limited their opponents to one or two 35%+ three-point shooters in the series. Cleveland entered the Eastern Conference Finals with four.
Smart’s array of defensive skills, combined with his elite communication and rapid decision-making, kept him and his teammates glued to shooters in Game 2. While Boston sprinted ahead throughout their first victory, they had to prevent James and company from pushing beyond a steady eight-point lead throughout the early portions of the following game.
That effort initially failed, when Smart pressed his chest into James, backed him all the way to the sideline until he nearly fell into his own bench, and this play ensued:
With the defense stretched out, Smart took over on offense, driving right at Kevin Love as Cleveland’s defense inexplicably collapsed on him again and again. Aron Baynes caught two early passes for open buckets through the back door while the Cavs surrounded Smart, a 53-percent finisher at the rim these playoffs.
That allowed Boston to remain within four, when Larry Nance nearly slipped to the basket alone even as Smart called out Aron Baynes and Terry Rozier to the high screen action with which Kyle Korver was working on the ball. Once he saw the ball swinging to Jeff Green, he got there just in time to escape the broken defensive play.
Smart’s role was clear: run Korver out of the building to prevent his gravity on the three-point line from overtaking his own directing as floor general. Stevens emphasized not letting Cleveland break off for runs above 10-0, and Smart did him three better by cutting off several 7-0 swings.
After a pair of free throws kept Boston down nine late in the second, he and Horford switched on Love attempting a similar screen action to the former Korver set, except in the low post.
The play ultimately ended in Cleveland’s favor with a Love bucket inside two offensive rebounds later, forcing Smart to make one of the most Smart plays ever down 11 with the half ticking away.
When the game returned to single possessions late in the third, Smart got his chance to launch a three deep on the left wing. It fell. When Rozier raced ahead of James to replicate his signature dunk, Smart transitioned from run management to lead protection.
In two possessions he again hit Baynes, this time over the top, on a drive-and-roll. Next play down he faked similar action to create a three.
Up five, Smart switched himself off Love in the paint, signaling to Baynes to stay with him as he rushed to the corner with Korver. When George Hill hit him there, he seemed stunned that it wasn’t a center stumbling out to him.
Smart’s arms were up, pointing out picks all game long. He danced around in the post with Love, circling him like a shark to prevent a post-up on a switch he could not escape.
Immediately after, Smart shot a pass to Jayson Tatum in transition. The definitive image of game two formed while Rozier could have ordered lunch on the right wing before shooting with his team ahead by seven. Smart and Boston’s nonstop defensive energy sucked the life completely out of the Cavs’ defense.
Cleveland looked for Korver but couldn’t find him in the fourth. Smart cut off a Smith pass and created two free throws for Semi Ojeleye. He contested another Korver attempt and forced a miss. Plays later, he stripped James from behind after Cleveland worked a rare stop and incredibly kept the ball in bounds along the sideline.
With six minutes remaining he chopped a prayer at the end of the shot clock by Horford back out to Tatum, then raced behind in a play strikingly similar to the one that won game five of the 76ers series.
He finally ripped the Cavs’ heart out for good, tearing through a Tristan Thompson screen to force Smith all the way back to half-court. The ensuing miss, with Smart all over him, flowed right into Smith’s flagrant foul on the other end that officially did Cleveland in.
The call that followed is another issue.
Check the box score, and Smart only had three field goals to his name, but in a postseason where he’s shooting an effective 39 percent, his winning plays amount to a +6.2 net rating. In 30 minutes, his +21 in game two superseded that of any of his teammates by seven points.
Early in the season Boston boasted an elite sub-100 defensive rating. With Smart back in the postseason, they’re back to 98.9 with him on the court. It’s the same story, reinforced by the setting in the NBA’s final four. The Celtics aren’t in the position they are now without Smart, the essential character in their defensive identity.