Tucked away in the Game 1 box score is a tidy stat line of 18 points (4-of-7 from behind the arc), 4 assists, and 2 steals. The player only played three minutes in the fourth quarter to mop up and close out the comeback that earned the Celtics home court advantage and a 1-0 lead in The NBA Finals. Teammates Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Al Horford were the headlines. The poor shooting but advanced playmaking of Jayson Tatum was a bigger story.
But below the fold was Marcus Smart, Boston’s longest tenured Celtic, and his calming influence as the heart and soul of the team. In his first Finals game and win, Smart wasn’t the fiery vet, leading by example by diving for the ball and giving up his body for the team. Instead, after the buzzer sounded on Boston’s 120-108 stunner at Chase Center, there was Smart, stoic on the sidelines, with bigger goals in mind.
“We play how we do. We didn’t let them affect us. They went on a run and we responded,” Smart said in the locker room. “This is how this series is going to go. We’re playing against a really good team who’s been here and who understands what energy they need to bring... We gotta do what we did every night. That’s how it’s going to be. That’s how we’re going to come out. It’s one game. It’s on to the next one, one game at a time.”
He was Steph Curry’s primary cover in the opener and while the Warriors leading scorer hit 3-of-5 of his shots (2-of-4 from behind the arc) against Smart, limiting Curry to just five shots is impressive considering the importance of muting his influence on the game. When both were on the floor, Smart defended Curry 46% of the time. When Golden State could create mismatches and have Curry face up against Boston’s bigs, he was more free to drive and shoot, taking fourteen shots and making six.
Other defenders certainly deserve credit. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard drew the assignment during that epic 40-16 run in the fourth and limited Curry to just 2-for-6 shooting. But don’t get it twisted. The remainder of the series will still pit the Defensive Player of the Year against arguably the most dangerous offensive force in the last decade. Per StatMuse, over the last five seasons, Curry has only scored 30 points against Smart, shooting 37% (30% on threes) with just three assists and seven turnovers.
In Round 1, it was Jayson Tatum vs. Kevin Durant. Against the Bucks, Al Horford and Grant Williams tag teamed Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics collectively defended Jimmy Butler. On this brightest stage, the focus will be on Smart.
““First off, this is such a special opportunity and a special assignment to have in guarding Steph on this stage,” the Hustle Award winner told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. “My first Finals appearance going against one of the greatest who has been here and done it multiple times as the best shooters we have ever seen. I just take the assignment like any other matchup, but this one I’m probably focused a bit more. I’m studying every aspect of his game, just making sure I try to understand to the best of my ability.”