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Marcus Smart makes return against Brooklyn

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Marcus Smart’s return was a mixed bag of ups and downs. In other words, it was a typical Marcus Smart game.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Marcus Smart Experience has always been a ride filled with highs and lows for the Boston Celtics. There would be an improved 3-point shot and playmaking chops along with impressive displays of all kinds of defensive effort. Hand in hand also came poor shot selection at times and some unnecessary gambles in the passing lanes that would compromise the overall structure of Boston’s defense.

Given how frequent and timely more of the former has come to be during Smart’s time in Boston, the Celtics welcome everything that comes with it. And after they’d gone 18 games without Smart as he rehabbed a calf injury, they were certainly happy to welcome him back into the lineup in a 121-109 loss to Brooklyn that showcased the duality of his impact.

“It felt good to be back out there with the guys,” Smart said after the game. “I just did what I do to try and help my team win games. We’ve got some things we need to clean up, but I’m proud of our effort. Shots fell for them that didn’t fall for us.”

Smart first checked in at the 5:15 mark of the first quarter. A two-time All-Defensive Team selection, his return was to be most felt at the defensive end, where the Celtics rank 19th in the league after placing inside the top five a year ago.

But by the final buzzer, Smart would finish with the highest individual defensive rating on his team. You can get a sense as to how that happened when, in the play below, he gambles for a steal with no help behind him, leaving Landry Shamet wide open in the corner to knock down the second of his six triples, after which Smart immediately raises his hand to shoulder the blame.

“There are plays that we could’ve been better with,” Brad Stevens said. “Gambles where we took ourselves out of position. Reaches where we took ourselves out of position. But that’s your margin against these guys, just super low. So you really gotta cross all T’s and dot all I’s when you’re playing against these guys on every possession.”

With Jaylen Brown struggling amid a ghastly 5-of-23 performance and Kemba Walker making just one of his seven 3-point attempts — the two combined for just 24 points — the Celtics needed any offense they could find to keep pace with Brooklyn’s dynamic attack.

Jayson Tatum delivered with 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting and Smart was second on the team in scoring with 19 in just under 21 minutes of action. He was 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, showing no rust despite having last played against the Lakers on January 30th.

More impressively, however, Smart earned nine free-throw attempts, converting eight of them, a small victory for the 74.2 percent free-throw shooter on the year. Smart knows how to sell a foul, but those theatrics are typically reserved for the defensive end. On this night, though, he used the body of his defenders against him to earn his third-highest free throw total of the season.

Smart’s scoring numbers will tell you he’s farther along in his re-acclimation than you’d expect from someone who hasn’t played in over a month. But he was part of a second unit that arguably cost Boston the game with its overall ineffectiveness.

The starters were a combined plus-1 — Brooklyn’s was a plus-5. The five bench players who saw the court were a combined minus-61 — Brooklyn’s was a plus-55. Smart himself was a minus-12, adding a new layer of perspective to what may seem like a great return game on the surface.

After the game, Stevens spoke about the frustration that comes with having to limit the playing time of a player like Smart, which tied his minutes to those he’s still relatively unfamiliar with. Of the four other bench guys to suit up against the Nets, none had played more than 148 minutes with Smart heading into this one. That duo? Smart and Grant Williams, who had a net rating of -16.2.

“The five-minute stint sucks,” Stevens said. “There’s only so many ways to manage that to have any rhythm at all if you want him to be able to end the game and use his versatility defensively. I know he’ll be excited when that 20-minute deal is over.”

As is always the case with Smart, there were plenty of positives that can’t be tracked by even the most sophisticated of advanced stats.

Take the full footage of the last of his three made 3-pointers on the night. The shot is praiseworthy enough, giving Boston one of its few second-half leads late in the third. Brown is credited with an assist. Smart might as well have earned half a dime for himself by directing Payton Pritchard to the opposite corner, thereby ensuring no Net is close enough to rotate while Kyrie Irving forces Jaylen to give up the ball.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Smart said of how it felt to be back on the court. “Just come back and do what I do and try and help our team win more game.”