Marcus Smart didn’t have to do anything out of the ordinary to reinvigorate the injury-ridden Celtics against the Bucks in Game 5.
Smart did simply what he does best in his long-awaited return to the court Tuesday night at the TD Garden. He scored some points (9), grabbed some rebounds (5), and dished out some assists (4), but anyone who has watched Smart play basketball knows his impact lives beyond the stats from the box score.
The Celtics guard made several hustle plays, including an improbable assist from the ground to Al Horford in the fourth quarter that helped seal Boston’s 92-87 victory over Milwaukee. With the win, the Celtics now lead the series 3-2.
Here’s what we learned from Game 5:
Marcus Smart’s return is a game changer.
It’s been over a month since Smart was last on the floor with the Celtics, but one could assume he’s never missed a game based on his play Tuesday night.
Despite anticipating some rust in his return, Smart looked more-than-comfortable on the court. He appeared to seamlessly re-integrate himself into various lineups, as his coach and teammates welcomed him back with open arms.
“I thought he obviously brought a great deal to the table for us tonight, as he always does,” coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the game. “It’s little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays . . . We have other guys making them when he hasn’t been here, but he makes them every night.”
Smart’s energy and emotion were overflowing even before he checked into the game, as he eagerly bounced up and down on the sidelines for eight minutes before his number was finally called in the first quarter. His intensity translated into the game’s flow via a stolen pass, an and-one basket, two blocked shots, and more.
Smart takes the bump and scores for his first bucket in return!#CUsRise
— NBA (@NBA) April 24, 2018
The spark Smart provided isn’t easily quantifiable, but the difference was detected by both teammates and opposing players.
“I said it earlier in the year that he was kind of like the soul of our team,” Al Horford told reporters after the game. “Everything he brings — his toughness, unselfishness, hard-nose play. We fed off his energy. I felt like the crowd fed off of it, we fed off of it, and it’s just good to have him back.”
With every shot attempt, the crowd would cheer in anticipation of a bucket. In typical Smart fashion, he, of course, shot 2-for-7 from the field; however, there seemed to be less exasperation than usual in response to the shots that hit the rim.
Perhaps Smart’s return not only lifted the spirits of the Celtics, but it also offered fans — some of which ruthlessly critique the 24-year-old — an overwhelming sense of relief that this team’s not done just yet.
Brad Stevens should not be taken for granted.
Stevens made several coaching decisions Tuesday night that reminded fans just how valuable he is to the Celtics’ success. From calls as simple as a timeout following Terry Rozier and Eric Bledsoe’s third-quarter scuffle to moves as major as rookie Semi Ojeleye’s first career start, Stevens demonstrated once again he is one of the organization’s biggest assets.
The decision to start Ojeleye was, unsurprisingly, defensively motivated. Ojeleye averaged just 2.7 points per game, but his contributions came in the form of smothering on-the-ball defense on the other end of the floor.
“Semi is a guy who has been a versatile defender for us all year,” Stevens told reporters after the game. “We just felt like we needed a little bit more ball pressure overall, and so that was the decision to go smaller.”
Ojeleye guarded Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of the night — “a tall task” per Stevens’s standards.
“Giannis is a heck of a player,” he explained. “You’re not going to be perfect against him. You’re not going to hold him down by any means. He makes plays for other people, he’s very unselfish if he’s not the one scoring.”
Although Antetokounmpo notched 10 rebounds and nine assists, Boston’s lineup change seemingly made a difference. The Greek Freak was held to a series-low 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting. He had taken fewer than 12 shots only twice during the regular season. As a team, the Celtics kept the Bucks to a series-low 87 points.
According to Ojeleye, Stevens’s instructions were simple: “Try and make it tough for Giannis to score.”
“I tried to stay in front and be physical,” he told reporters. “His size and speed are tough. You try and beat him to the spot, but he’s got a full package, so you can’t really anticipate too much.”
Al Horford continues to provide what the Celtics need.
With Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum often sharing the spotlight — and deservedly so — in the absence of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Horford’s performance remains under-appreciated.
On a night in which Tatum was limited to eight points and benched for the end of the fourth quarter, Horford gave the Celtics 37 minutes of solid basketball. He finished the game with a double-double (14 rebounds, 22 points) — his second of the series. The five-time NBA All-Star is averaging 18.2 points (shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from behind the arc), 8.6 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
Even Charles Barkley should be happy.
Horford’s numbers are up from his regular-season averages of 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds, but his veteran leadership and versatility are not to be overlooked. With Smart’s return to the lineup, Stevens slid Horford to center — a transition that works on a team that’s often position-less like the Celtics.
“He was huge,” Smart said. “Al did a great job tonight. He’s a tough matchup up for a five. He’s not your typical five, so when he’s in, he’s getting out of those screens and he’s rolling and causing confusion. It makes it a lot easier for us guards to get in the paint and find guys or create our own shot. Al is a big key for us.”