The Boston Celtics overcame a gritty and resilient Raptors team on Friday night, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals as a result. It was a game predicated on intense defense affording little room for either team’s offensive threats to get to work.
Win or go home games naturally draw every ounce from a team’s stars, yet you find victory in the shadows hidden below the box score. Contests like these are wars of attrition, a battleground for only the mentally dominant.
Luckily, the Celtics possess a player who thrives in that type of environment, capable of the unthinkable when the odds stack up. Marcus Smart has displayed his offensive growth throughout the series, most notably with his Game 2 barrage from beyond the three-point line.
Game 7 didn’t require that kind of offensive output from Smart. Instead, it called for his hustle, grit, and determination. Luckily, the newly crowned All-Defensive First Team guard seemed to recognize this unspoken requirement as he began to disrupt play from the opening tip.
Less than three minutes in, Smart conjured his first steal.
Pascal Siakam creates a driving lane by selling Jaylen Brown on his pump fake. Daniel Theis rotates towards the paint to offer secondary defense and causes Siakam to bail out and look to swing the ball outside. Smart, who has taken a perfect position on the high help-line to cover both Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry, reads the play and intercepts the errant pass. On go the jets, and Smart finishes the breakaway with a floater around the rim.
A perfectly timed steal can swing momentum instantly, deflating the opponent while energizing yours. The Celtics had twelves steals in Game 7, winning the turnover battle 18-10. Smart had three of those steals, each coming courtesy of reading the passing lanes.
The 6’3 guard was also the most active Celtic nullifying second chance opportunities, leading the hustle charts with four defensive box outs. When you hear that Smart affects games in ways that don’t show up in traditional box scores, this is one of those ways. By boxing out, Smart is ensuring his man cannot obtain the rebound, while also allowing him the opportunity to leak out once the Celtics are back in possession.
When he wasn’t pilfering possessions or restricting second chance opportunities, Smart facilitated his teammates’ game, finishing the game with six dimes - second only to Jayson Tatum. From fast-break alley-oops to carving the Raptors open with his drive-and-dish game, the Texas native put on a playmaking clinic.
With Kemba Walker isolated in the corner, Theis switches direction and feeds a curling Smart the rock. Smart embarks on a 45-degree cut, keeping Kyle Lowry in jail once he enters the paint. Once Gasol threatens to cut off the lane, Smart delivers a beautiful pass to find Jaylen Brown open in the corner for an easy bucket.
While the assists, steals, and scoring were all welcome additions in this high stakes contest, nothing will compare to Smart’s only block. Just a shade under a minute remaining, the Celtics lead by two. Tatum had just missed a layup under pressure from Siakam and the Raptors (who love to get out in transition) turned on the jets.
Smart is defending the possession while back-peddling from midcourt. Norman Powell is driving laterally at the rim, leading Smart to stunt into Powell’s space and slightly alter his trajectory like a tracking free safety. The slight change in Powell’s path allows Smart to defend on his hip, which then turns into a thunderous block as Powell rises for the layup.
Following the victory, Brad Stevens spoke about Smart’s impact:
“The hustle, the block, the toughness, he had a couple of loose balls, he almost came up with another couple of rebounds there towards the end of the game. He’s a huge part of our team. He’s a huge part of our organization. I said this before the playoffs: we’ve got a chance to play in this great event every year he’s been here, and it’s not a coincidence.”
Marcus Smart spoke candidly about his performance following the game, displaying all the confidence of a player who just dominated in the trenches.
“We knew coming into this series it was going to be a battle. We knew they weren’t going to lay down, and neither were we. We knew it was going to be as tough as nails, and the team who was toughest physically and mentally was going to win.”
Smart went on to expand on his thought process as the play between him and Norman Powell began to unfold.
“It’s funny because as soon as Norman caught the ball, instantly I remembered last game where in the exact same play he came at me full court and got the and-one. In the same type of standard where it was a tight game, and he put them up by I think three- something like that, it was a tight game. When he caught the ball, in my mind, I was telling myself, “he has to dunk it,” and I’m going to meet him up top and see who wins that battle. I bet on myself 110% of the time. I’m first-team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
As NBC Boston’s Abby Chin noted in the post-game press conference, Smart is arguably the team’s series MVP for his stellar play on both ends. In Gordon Hayward’s absence, Smart has proven to be a worthy adversary against one of the league’s grittiest teams. Now, as the Celtics move on to face another defensive juggernaut in the Miami Heat, Smart’s grit and hustle plays will be needed again.