Marcus Smart ranked in the 80th percentile of on-off splits when he went down with a hand laceration that he suffered on Christmas, and not for defensive reasons. The Celtics shot 4.4 higher eFG%, and scored 6.6 points per 100 possessions more with Smart on the floor compared to off.
“Just a pain tolerance thing, he’ll be wrapped up, padded and went through quite a bit of shooting and practice yesterday,” Ime Udoka said of Smart’s return pregame. “The intangibles that he brings to every game, that don’t always show up on the stat sheet, his leadership, obviously defense is what he’s out there to do a majority of the time ... we’ve been leaning on some younger guys, and that’s definitely been missed.”
Smart couldn’t fully grip the ball or shoot comfortably, missing arguably the two worst Celtics losses all season back-to-back. The team turned the ball over often in Minnesota, then melted down to 9.5% from three against the Clippers. The Celtics had multiple scares Wednesday after building a 30-point lead behind sharp shooting, precise playmaking and active off-ball movement in the team’s best first half all season. Boston, this time, had a response to each, and Phoenix never came back within single-digits during the Celtics’ 123-108 win. It broke a three-game losing streak for Boston, and eight losses of their last 11.
Of course, Smart began the afternoon with three straight makes in the lane while the Celtics’ big lineup including Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, Al Horford and Robert Williams III held Chris Paul and Devin Booker to a 3-for-14 start in the first quarter. Brown, now posting 58 assists and 65 turnovers this season and admittedly struggled earlier in the week, shook off a pair of early giveaways to hit a mid-ranger over two defenders, a long three and finish an alley-oop from Horford.
The Celtics also set Williams III on the baseline in the opening frame, losing the ball the first time, but the second drawing a double from Paul and leading Romeo Langford to the rim for his first basket off the bench. Payton Pritchard joined him in the second unit with a three, then buried two more into the second quarter as an overwhelming lead mounted on Phoenix before noon mountain time.
Smart kept the ball whipping side-to-side and offense kept flowing from Williams III in the high post while cutters and screeners freed each other away from him. Williams finished the first half with eight points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a pair of put backs after his career high 10 offensive rebounds against the Clippers on Wednesday. He entered Friday’s game ranking fifth with a 14.2 OREB%. At halftime, the Celtics led 67-41.
“I just want to talk about it after the last half because we’ve got a history of some games blowing leads so I’m not getting too happy about it,” Josh Richardson told NBC Sports Boston at halftime.
Richardson proved prophetic in short order. The Celtics courted their three bigs, who rotated too slowly and couldn’t get back on Devin Booker in transition for a three-point point play. Jalen Smith added another, posting his two best games against the Celtics earlier this year. Mikal Bridges and Cam Payne hit threes, Cam Johnson added another as Smart and Brown led a spirited discussion during an early timeout after halftime.
The Celtics responded to every Suns run though. Brown hit free throws, Smart hit a layup and chased his own miss, Williams III buried home a fourth-chance shot following a Horford miss inside and found Smart for a pair of cutting layups to match his career high with eight assists.
Inverting the offense, Grant went to the post against Phoenix’ guards when the Suns tried to go small, scoring on three straight plays including over a Booker foul. One of his makes in the lane came cutting off Williams, who sat to end the frame with nine assists. Langford closed the third with a driving floater and a three in the right corner before the buzzer. Smart tip-toed up the court against pressure and found Langford at the perfect moment for his third assist.
The Suns drew within 11 late in the fourth quarter, but never closer as Williams III notched his first career triple-double with a pass to Brown for a long two. Horford reached seven assists himself hitting Langford for 16 points, as he, Pritchard (11) and Richardson (19) rounded out seven Celtics in double-figures. Grant shot 6-for-11 with 13 points, a steal and a block. Williams III blocked five shots along with his 10 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
For more postgame coverage of the Boston’s first game back at TD Garden, tune into the the Garden Report Postgame Show LIVE on CLNS Media right after the game. Join A Sherrod Blakely, Bobby Manning, Josue Pavon, Jimmy Toscano and host John Zannis for a full breakdown. Plus, the guys will discuss the Celtics anemic three-point shooting and Jaylen Brown shouldering the scoring load.