Marcus Smart’s 22 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, and two steals don’t mark any postseason career highs. But there’s a valid argument that Smart’s Game 6 performance, in his 100th playoff game as a member of the Boston Celtics, was his most valuable performance yet.
When the Celtics’ offense needed Smart — and at times, it desperately needed him — the veteran guard delivered. When the defense needed a jolt of energy, Smart came through. Boston probably wouldn’t be playing on Sunday without his heroics.
“He got the pace going for us from start to finish,” said Joe Mazzulla postgame. “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.”
The biggest storyline entering Game 6 was Boston inserting Robert Williams III into the starting lineup and reuniting the two-big tandem with him and Al Horford. But the move was risky; with Derrick White headed to the bench, Boston was sacrificing a shooting threat to help set the tone in the opening minutes of play.
Smart’s production spacing the floor quickly went under the microscope. On this early possession, he’s used twice as a screener as the Celtics investigate Philly’s defensive coverages on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. When Tatum sees Tyrese Maxey helping on his drive following the dribble hand-off, he kicks it out to Smart for an open corner three.
It’s a miss — but we see Smart signal to Tatum and acknowledge the successful process. The 76ers consistently left him in favor of containing Boston’s stars, and Smart knocked down 3 of 8 triples in response. Two were kick-out threes but in different situations, and the below make was the result of Smart hustling to give Tatum an outlet in transition.
Smart has canned a red-hot 12 of 18 corner threes in the postseason, and while we can’t predict his streakiness, he should continue to shoot these with confidence because the opportunities will pop up again on Sunday.
Joel Embiid has built an interior fortress for Philadelphia in this series. Embiid still got his three blocks in Game 6, but Smart showed an impressive willingness to attack the MVP on drives.
With Williams’ increased lineup presence, Embiid had to think extra about the lob opportunities. It allowed Smart to drive right at the 7-footer and finish with floaters and layups.
And if Embiid did bite on the drive, Smart didn’t hesitate to toss the ball up:
In addition to Smart’s half-court success, he added a transition layup and two assists to that earlier corner trey, and gave a much-needed jolt to Boston’s fast breaks. The Celtics added more than five points per 100 possessions to their efficiency with transition play, a healthy number when considering the pacing lulls that can strike this team.
Then there’s the defense, which can simply be defined as combat art.
Smart had the two steals swooping in as a helper. But some of his best work came without a box score tally mark with stuff like this effort to challenge an Embiid entry pass, leading to a turnover:
Smart tasked with defending Embiid, and battles to front him in the post.— Pull up shoot (@NElGHT_) May 12, 2023
Horford leaves PJ open in the corner and they force a turnover. pic.twitter.com/1PuZrePSHZ
Smart doesn’t get box-score credit for this, but it’s a remarkable stop. Philadelphia loves Embiid in these empty-corner moments where he can score 1-on-1 or make plays in response to a double-team. Smart fronts him and goes to work denying that entry pass, to the point where Embiid is practically in the restricted area and in position for Al Horford to help. It’s an amazing display of pure effort to make the 76ers uncomfortable.
Also, how about this high-motor rotation to run Georges Niang off the three-point line, even after Smart gets beat on the initial drive from Tyrese Maxey:
Sixers go to their Embiid-Harden PnR. Smart helping off Maxey, and Harden wisely swings it to him.— Pull up shoot (@NElGHT_) May 12, 2023
Maxey did a great job attacking late closeouts, but misses the drop off to Tobias as Brogdon and JB rotate to him, while Smart peels to the corner.
Great contest from JB. pic.twitter.com/0zVntAoGIx
Or this deflection stemming from timely help on an Embiid roll to the basket, or this spin move to navigate a screen and contest Harden, or this drawn charge (thank you @NElGHT_ for posting all these clips!).
This was a signature defensive effort from Smart, who did everything he could to take away the Sixers’ advantage-seeking attempts. His postgame quotes echo that mentality.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Game 7 will again put Smart’s resolve to the test. He needs to fire away on those catch-and-shoot attempts regardless of a hot or cold streak, continue attacking the basket and leveraging the gravity of his teammates, and muck up Philly’s gameplan with his defensive activity.
Celtics fans shouldn’t worry about Smart bringing intensity on Sunday. As long as it flows through the right channels, he can again be a catalyst in a do-or-die playoff atmosphere.