With their backs against the wall, the Boston Celtics needed someone to step up in Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Lose, and their season was over. Win, and the series would head back to Boston for an all-deciding Game 7.
From the jump, that player was Marcus Smart.
“He got the pace going for us from start to finish,” said Joe Mazzulla. “He did a great job of keeping us poised, and he was the quarterback of our defense — him and Rob. When Smart can dictate the pace like that and get us into offense and get us into spacing and just play with that level toughness, it was contagious.”
Smart kicked off the game by scoring six points in the first quarter, which led the team. He nailed two big-time three-pointers as the 76ers chose to leave him open from behind the arc, instead choosing to send extra pressure at Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
In the second, Smart’s strong play continued. He drained a corner three, faked out Joel Embiid on a drive, and killed the 76ers in transition. His nine points led the way for Boston for the second quarter in a row.
“Throughout the game, Marcus Smart was steady for us,” said Al Horford. “He kept us steady. He stayed the course.”
By the night's end, Smart was the Celtics’ leading scorer, pouring in 22 points to go along with seven rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. He shot 8-of-15 from the field and 3-of-8 from distance.
But his impact on the stat sheet doesn’t do his entire performance justice.
As much of a cliche as it’s become, Smart’s value extends far beyond the box score. His leadership was necessary in Boston’s Game 6 victory as they grappled with the 76ers for much of the second half.
It’s his job to set the tone for the Celtics.
“My teammates look for me for that. My coaching staff looks to me for that,” said Smart. “It’s one of the greatest things about me is to be able to come in and change the game with just the way I play, both offensively and defensively.”
The longest-tenured Celtic, this marks Smart’s ninth season with the team. He played with Rajon Rondo, he battled with the Isaiah Thomas teams, he’s watched Tatum and Brown get drafted and grow into an All-NBA duo, and he’s grinded his way into the starting point guard role.
And he’s done it all by utilizing the same mindset of winning at all costs. Whether that’s drawing two offensive fouls on James Harden to win a game or sprinting for a chase-down block on Norman Powell, Smart always leaves it all out on the court.
That’s the perspective he’s drilling into the Celtics.
“We don’t want to get off this court saying, ‘I should have done more. I could have done more,’ and then we’re pissed at ourselves,” said Smart. “We got to go out there, and it’s got to be a dogfight. You got to be ready to scrap. You got to be ready to bleed. You got to be willing to take a shot to the face, to do whatever it takes to win.”
In Game 6, that mentality showed. A slow start and some brutal mistakes cost the Celtics a chance to close things out early, but they persevered.
Tatum broke an absurd slump in the fourth quarter, single-handedly outscoring the 76ers in the frame. Boston held the 76ers to just 13 fourth-quarter points. Horford and the Celtics’ defense prevented Embiid from attempting a shot for the final 3:56 of the game.
Everything came together perfectly as Boston pulled away, using Smart’s leadership as a launchpad for success.
But the series is far from over.
Now, the Celtics will have three days to regroup before welcoming the 76ers to TD Garden on Sunday for Game 7. It’s do-or-die time. Smart believes in his squad, but it’s time for the Celtics to walk the walk.
“We’re the more experienced team,” said Smart. “It’s not going to be easy, though. But we are the more experienced team in these situations, and we got to go out there and show it.”