Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had electrified through the first three quarters in Boston’s Wednesday night battle against the New York Knicks, combining for 43 of their team’s 70 points, but that wasn’t even enough to give them a lead as they entered the final frame down by three points.
If the greatness of Tatum and Brown couldn’t put the Celtics ahead, somebody else would need to offer some type of spark. Options were limited in the absence of Kemba Walker on the second night of a back to back.
Marcus Smart wasn’t having the makings of a stellar outing through the first 36 minutes, having made just one of his seven field goal attempts. But it’s in those unexpected moments where Smart typically arrives, and he did exactly that to help the Celtics emerge with a 101-99 victory.
Smart earned six free-throw attempts and hit them all. He crashed the glass for a putback that doubled Boston’s lead to four. He hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with under a minute remaining.
When the final buzzer sounded, Smart had amassed 14 points in the final frame, equal to the amount produced by Tatum and Brown combined. He also chipped in three assists and was a plus-7, ultimately finishing the game with 17 points, nine assists, and four rebounds.
“It’s what I do,” Smart said in his postgame presser. “I make winning plays for my team and get us extra possessions. I saw an opportunity to get a rebound that was much-needed. My threes, I’ve always believed in myself. Like I said, I couldn’t care less what anybody says. I’m gonna continue to shoot it and I shot 3-for-6 tonight and it showed.”
After more than six years of NBA basketball, the Marcus Smart experience is a phenomenon known across the league. His tenacity and timely two-way playmaking have come through at crucial moments for the Celtics as they did against New York. The same could be said of poor shot selection and random brain farts.
Case in point: In a six-point loss to the New Orleans less than two weeks ago, Smart committed five fouls — three in the fourth quarter — and missed all six of his 3-point attempts, one of which was an egregious half court heave that can only be attributed to the absence of situational awareness.
Smart wound up getting himself ejected after arguing with a referee. The Celtics lost a game they probably should’ve won and definitely needed to win to hold steady in the playoff picture.
The good has almost always outshined the bad when it comes to the Marcus Smart experience, but Boston has typically won at a pace that allows them to brush any shortcomings under the rug. As they remain muddling below expectations, Smart’s bad moments have been magnetized and scrutinized to an even further degree.
“As a group, we just have to be there for each other,” Tatum said after the loss to the Pelicans.
Tatum was talking about picking up Smart amid the lows of bad performances like the one against New Orleans. But what was at the time a very real statement can now be viewed with a dash of irony after Smart’s heavy lifting in a crucial win that gives Boston a leg up in the tight seeding race out east.
“I know that sometimes we get caught up in some of the home run swings he takes. I think those get overanalyzed and everybody misses the fact that he’s got the courage to do it,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “He’s tough. He helps you win. Tonight he made a ton of big plays.”
Fingers are pointed his way in defeat. Praise showers over him in victory. That’s an emotional swing typically reserved for All-Stars and MVP candidates, not a team’s fourth-leading scorer.
The Celtics have known of this anomaly for years, continuously embracing it without breaking stride. Because for every loss to New Orleans, a win over New York is there to realign the scales in a way that’s worked out pretty well in Boston’s favor.