Marcus Smart is back.
After missing over a month of basketball due to a torn ligament in his right thumb, the Celtics guard returned to the court for Game 5 against the Bucks at the TD Garden Tuesday evening. Smart played 25 minutes off the bench, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds.
But as coach Brad Stevens noted before tip-off, a stat sheet “won’t tell the story of Marcus Smart.”
Within a minute of checking into the game, Smart was already on the floor after diving for a loose ball— one of his favorite things to do on the basketball court — after poking it away from Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova.
“I was always taught, coming back from injuries, the last thing you want to do is have a mental game going on with yourself, psyching yourself out, because you just start thinking about the injury,” Smart told reporters after the game. “Things are going to happen it’s the game of basketball, it’s part of the game. If it’s supposed to happen, it’s supposed to happen, so just keep playing.”
Smart had acknowledged the difficulty in that fine balance between making an impact and trying to do much, but he assured reporters before the game he would be playing with no tentativeness. Wearing a heavily taped splint on his thumb throughout the game, he lived up to his promise and showed no fears of re-injury.
Come the fourth quarter, Smart was on the floor once again — fending off three Bucks players to retain possession and hit teammate Al Horford with a pass that set up an easy basket. The wild play extended Boston’s lead to 86-79 with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. Horford admitted in his postgame press conference he was surprised by Smart’s unlikely assist.
“I didn’t think he could get the ball to me, to best honest,” Horford said. “I thought it was going to be a jump ball . . . It wasn’t good once you see him go down like that. I don’t know how he was able to get the ball out.”
While the sequence seems improbable to some, if not most, teammate Jaylen Brown said he likes the Celtics’ chances when Smart’s at the center of those battles. Brown told reporters if he could put his money on any player to come out with the ball in that type of situation, he’s putting his money on Smart.
Jaylen Smart on Marcus Smart’s pass from the floor to Al Horford in Q4: “If I had to put my money on anybody, no matter who it is, any sport, I’m putting my money on Smart. He’s coming out with that ball.” pic.twitter.com/Xp5281hPu6
— Nicole Yang (@nicolecyang) April 25, 2018
The play arguably sealed Boston’s 92-87 victory, but according to Smart, he “just made a play.” Nothing more, nothing less.
“I made a quick play,” he said. “I just tried to make sure I got him the ball and it was going to take everything I had. I just made the emphasis I was going to make a play and get it to Al when I was on the floor and they weren’t taking it from me.”
Smart’s hustle plays set the tone for Celtics, helping reset their defensive mindset that at times singlehandedly won several games during the regular season. Game 5 marked the lowest scoring contest of the series for both teams.
Whether he was due for an off night or whether it was a result of the change in energy, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to just 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting from the field. Antetokounmpo had taken fewer than 12 shots only twice during the regular season. Two of his shot attempts Tuesday were blocked by Smart.
Bucks forward Khris Middleton said he needs to do a better job of knowing where Smart is on the defensive end in Thursday’s Game 6.
“I don’t know if he’s going for the steal, to draw the foul, or what not,” Middleton told reporters. “He’s just going to work. He’s going to make a lot of dirty plays — not dirty physically — but hardworking plays. We just got to do a better job of matching that intensity when he comes onto the court and when he’s not on the court. He’s a great player, smart player, crafty. We just got to figure out how to contain him better next game and not let him make those many plays.”
Middleton’s sentiment was echoed by both Stevens and Smart’s teammates, who are more-than-familiar with that high level of intensity that seemingly only Smart can bring day in and day out. With the series tied at two apiece headed into Game 5, his return likely couldn’t have come at a better time for the battered Celtics.
“The confidence for us right now is high,” Smart said. “This was a big game for us, especially after they pounded us at their place two games in a row. For us to come back and respond the way we did, I’m proud of this team, I’m proud of the guys, and it was exactly what we needed.”