Before the game, I was expecting a duel. Ja Morant vs. Marcus Smart. The young upstart MVP candidate who seemingly defies gravity nightly against the grifter, the counterpuncher, the bulldog on D.
But in the end, it wasn’t exactly iron sharpening iron. With all the defensive switching that the Celtics do, Smart rarely went head-to-head with Morant. There weren’t many punches thrown between the two, but a couple of plays landed for sure. Late in the second quarter as Memphis chipped away at the Celtics’ lead, Smart fumbled away the ball (1 of 11 disastrous first half turnovers) against a Morant-Anderson double team and then Morant happened:
It’s the kind of play that’s absolutely captivated the NBA over the last few weeks. His play is electric. You can hear the Garden collectively hold their breath as he leaves the floor and then explode as if Morant plays for the home team. That’s star power, but as CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith points out, that’s not exactly what Boston is all about.
Despite the pleas of many to get someone else, Stevens handed the point guard keys to Marcus Smart and he handed Smart a contract extension, too. The message from Day 1 was clear: This will be Tatum and Brown’s team, but Smart will be the team’s heartbeat.
Morant would finish as the game’s leading scorer with 38 — “the quietest 38 I’ve ever seen” according to Ime Udoka — but if you check the scorecards, it was Smart’s smart play that tilted it in Boston’s favor. Morant may have landed more punches and even knocked down Smart for a standing eight count, but it was the Celtics point guard that raised the belt in the end.
As Boston built their lead in the second, Smart threaded the needle to find Grant Williams in the corner on this magic trick of a play:
“He was just like, ‘damn, good pass.’ He was trying to understand how I got it through,” Smart said after the game. “He was just amazed at the pass. It was just a compliment from two good players playing each other and competing.”
There’s some razzle dazzle there, but also a mature recognition on Smart’s part to make a good basketball decision and get the ball to the right player. That assist was one of twelve on the night and a career-high for Smart. After many fans and pundits were skeptical that he could be the starting point guard next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Smart has had arguably the best stretch of his career. Per Sean Grande, the radio voice of the Celtics, Smart has averaged 12.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 5.6 assists in his last nineteen games; Boston is 17-2 during that stretch.
In the past, Smart might have relished a mano a mano against an MVP candidate and tried to match him shot for shot. He might have waved off help, slapped his hands on the parquet, and dared Morant to try and beat him one-on-one. Now in his eighth season and starting his four-year extension next year, Smart is not part of an offensive and defensive system that he’s completely bought in to and more importantly, bought into him. On a night where we would have loved and trusted Smart to take on the challenge of containing Morant alone, he deferred to the gameplan.
“Our bigs are very versatile in moving their feet, playing angles, and understanding their advantages and that’s their height and their length and meeting them at the top of the rim,” Smart said of trusting the trio of Boston’s bigs — Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Daniel Theis — to contain Morant. “They do a real good job. That’s what makes it really hard for people to play against us.”
With two and a half minutes to go, Memphis had whittled down Boston’s 17-point lead to nine. The Grizzlies trapped Tatum to get the ball out of his hands, Timelord short-rolled and found Smart for an open 3. On the ensuing offensive possession, Smart and Tatum ran a pick-and-pop with Tatum hitting another triple that knocked out Memphis for good.
So, while Morant may have landed the loudest punch of the night that briefly sent Smart to the cavas, it was Smart that landed just enough body blows to win the fight.