Here’s the situation: 45 seconds left, seven seconds on the shot clock. Celtics up seven points. If they score, it’s a stake in the heart of the Wizards. If they don’t score, a Wiz bucket makes it a two-possession game. Celtics fans would usually cringe at the thought of Marcus Smart waving off Isaiah Thomas to take the game into his own hands. But Monday night was different. Smart deserved his moment:
Smart bulldozed Bojan Bogdanovic to get to the rim, scored, and flexed. Game over. The Celtics won a hard-fought Game 7 on their home floor, 115–105, and will advance to face the Cavaliers.
Smart’s layup wasn’t pretty, but neither is anything else he does. Smart said after the game that his nickname growing up was "Hound Dog." "You can’t be out there looking pretty. It’s gonna get ugly," he said. "You gotta be willing to stick your nose in there and get bloody a little bit. That’s me. I’m willing to sacrifice my body for my team."
The moments leading up to Smart’s game-sealing layup capture this hound-dog essence. Smart wasn’t very good in the first half, other than this chase-down block:
But this is a guy who can turn everything around with one play. In Game 7, that play came midway through the third period. Coach Brad Stevens had pulled Thomas, who was being repeatedly picked on by the Wizards offense, and plugged in Smart, who stayed on the floor for the remainder of the game. "I think that our defense really fueled us," Al Horford said afterward, alluding to the team’s 95.8 defensive rating over the final 18 minutes. "Marcus Smart was just amazing in the third and then the fourth. His presence … he was unbelievable."
Most of what Smart does goes beyond the box score, though on Monday he put up some nice numbers. The Wizards have John Wall, a human with a turbo button and one of the scariest transition scorers in the NBA. Smart helped shave points off Washington’s lead by playing excellent positional defense and using his limbs to strip Wall on the break:
On the next possession, Washington called a baseline out-of-bounds play for the scorching-hot Bradley Beal. Ian Mahinmi set a screen, but Smart was feisty enough to fight over and contest Beal’s attempt:
Then, early in the fourth quarter, Beal iso’d against Smart, but couldn’t get around Smart’s wingspan:
A couple of minutes later, Smart snatched a rebound out of the hands of Otto Porter Jr., who had overpowered Thomas to get ideal positioning for the board:
Of the four previous plays, all Smart gets credited for is a block and a rebound. Big whoop. These plays made a more significant impact than a block and a board. Smart made an impact by reducing points, and plus-minus can’t even begin to account for it. Wall is probably scoring on the break. Beal maybe hits a more-open 3 and then drives by an inferior defender. Porter either scores off the offensive rebound or gets fouled. As the Celtics know damn well, a possession doesn’t end until after a rebound is secured. The above four plays alone might’ve saved nine points, and the Celtics won by only 10. "Marcus, I thought, played as hard as he possibly could. … He was exhausted," Stevens said after the game. "And that’s a good feeling when you win, when you’ve left it all out there." Who knows what would have happened had Smart not been where his team needed him to be.
"Smart does what Smart does. A lot of the things Marcus Smart does is unmeasurable," said Kelly Olynyk, who scored 26 points off the bench. "Whether it’s getting a hand on a basketball, ripping down a crazy rebound, getting up into somebody, blowing up plays, you may never see it on the stat sheet, but a lot of what Marcus Smart does is what makes us great, gives us that edge. He always plays with an edge for however long he’s out there." Olynyk then brought up how Smart hit two huge 3s for the Celtics, which he called "a bonus." Smart doesn’t need to score to impact the game — the mark of a special player — so anytime Boston gets something, it’s a cherry on top.
"Those plays are huge," Stevens said, smirking. "We can talk about Marcus’s shooting percentage all year long all we want, but I think we all know when it’s all on the line he’s going to make it. And that’s a unique trait, I think." Stevens somewhat frustratingly gives Smart the green light to shoot whenever he wants. No other player in league history averaging over four triples per game in his career has a worse 3-point percentage than Smart does, per Basketball-Reference. The key to Smart making the leap as a player will lie with his shooting development. But while points are nice — Smart scored 13 — and assists are too — Smart assisted on four baskets leading to nine points — they don’t matter compared with the other stuff: the defense, crashing the glass, diving for loose balls. "A lot of fans might just pay attention to the points," Avery Bradley said after the game. "But Marcus Smart does all the little things." Those little things made a big enough impact to tilt the Game 7 scale.