The Marcus Smart game: Since returning from thumb surgery, we’ve seen Marcus Smart’s splint get smaller and smaller and his comfort in shooting growing and growing. Smart’s streaky and his current streak is trending up. After a string of get well games against Milwaukee, Smart has started to find his footing in these conference semis. His three point shooting is still suspect, but he’s started to challenge the Sixers in the key and attack the rim more.
We’ve seen Marcus Smart step up offensively before. Two years ago vs. Atlanta, the Celtics needed a win at home to keep pace with the Hawks in Game 4 and Smart delivered with a 20-point game. Last playoffs, Boston stole a game from Cleveland in Cleveland on the back of his 27 points, including 7-for-10 from the arc. Tonight’s Game 5 has Marcus Smart written all over it and the pitbull is salivating:
With all the praise that’s been showered on the breakout post seasons of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, let’s not forget that the embodiment of this Celtics team still resides in heart and play of its longest tenured player. As enigmatic as Smart can be, he’s going to win Boston a big game in these playoffs and the boo birds will be silenced about his impending restricted free agency. Like Marcus says, “what’s understood don’t need to be said.”
The curveball: Greg Monroe has seen minutes in two games against Philadelphia, both when Boston was down big in the second quarter of Game 2 and at the end of the 3rd in Game 5. In both instances, it felt like Brad Stevens spitballing. When the team signed him in February, his ground-and-pound playing style wasn’t exactly a sure fit in Boston’s read-and-react offense, but by March, he was having a significant impact as a rotation player and averaging 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists in the final fifteen games. However, Monroe hasn’t found playing time in the Celtics’ match ups with Milwaukee or Philadelphia.
Game 5 could present an opportunity. With the Celtics potentially missing a ball handler tonight in Shane Larkin, Monroe could act as a playmaker in the post. In Games 3 & 4, Joel Embiid was relieved by Ersan Ilysova. Stevens counter with switching out Aron Baynes and Smart for Brown and Marcus Morris. In CelticsBlog’s internal Slack channel, Keith Smith suggested that Brown might return to the starting lineup to combat TJ McConnell’s performance and put a ball handler back on the bench in place of Larkin. That could open up a slot for Monroe.
In Game 4, the Sixers were very aggressive hedging pick-and-rolls and trapping Rozier on the perimeter, so inserting Monroe could change the point of attack. He’s an excellent passer on the high and low post and with Philadelphia trying to push all the action away from the paint, it could open up back door cutting lanes and flare screens for open corner 3’s.
Old dog, new tricks: Marcus Morris absolutely owned March. He was their leading scorer at nearly 19 points per game on 48.3% shooting. He covered for the absences of Brown and Smart and the eventual loss of Kyrie Irving. He’s struggled in the playoffs with his shot and taken a back seat to the emergence of Boston’s young core, but there’s some Gran Torino brewing with Mook.
To be clear, Marcus Morris is only 28. Maybe it’s his old man mid-range game, his beard, or the mentor role he’s embraced with Tatum, but Marcus seems older than he is surrounded by Boston’s youth movement. He’s been scuffling with his jumper for the last three weeks and found a rhythm from behind the arc in Game 4. More importantly though, a fire’s been lit with the run-in with Embiid.
Morris doesn’t need any extra motivation. This is only his second trip to the post season after a flame out two years ago in Detroit. After bouncing around early in his career in Houston and Phoenix (don’t mention the Suns to Morris), he’s found a home in Boston. After being ejected late in a win where he scored 25 points against the Raptors on March 31st, Morris said:
“When I first got here people knew who I was. So it’s not different. I think they’re just starting to love me more. I think they liked me, but now they’re starting to love me, so I appreciate that.”
His grittiness and no nonsense approach have endeared him to the city and he’ll feed off that Garden crowd tonight. Like most of the Celtics, he’s just a different player at home. In the playoffs, he’s shooting 43.5% in the Garden (as opposed to 30.8% on the road) and 7 percentage points higher from behind the arc.
None of these scenarios could happen in Game 5 or it could be little contributions from everybody that helps eliminate the Sixers and sets up an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since the Celtics hired Brad Stevens, they’ve been a team that’s trusted the analytics and believed that at some point, water finds its level. Smart, Monroe, and Morris are all due for a big game in a big game. Could it be tonight?