PHILADELPHIA — Celtics coach Brad Stevens had already scolded Marcus Smart for an unnecessary third-quarter ejection that injected renewed energy into the Philadelphia 76ers — and maybe the Boston-Philly rivalry as a whole, considering the C's were seemingly trending towards a series sweep before the flareup — but, pressed on the matter, Stevens wanted to make one thing clear.
"Don’t get it wrong: We love all that Marcus is,” said Stevens. "And part of Marcus is his fire. As you know, a time or two a year, it gets the best of him. But this is just a reminder of how important he is. He knows how we all feel and he knows we all love him. That’s just part of it."
For a Celtics team with wild inconsistencies in its toughness, effort, and defensive intensity, Smart is seemingly one of the few known commodities on a game-to-game basis. He’s going to bring grit, intensity, and a relentless desire to make things difficult for opponents. Yes, he’s probably going to launch some questionable 3-pointers (though he’s making more of them this year) but he’s also going to take a key charge or come up with a must-have loose ball.
Losing Smart on a night the Celtics were already playing shorthanded with the absences of Gordon Hayward (concussion protocol) and Aron Baynes (second-quarter ankle sprain) put his teammates in a tough spot. Considering how the temperature of this team tends to shift with every big win or maddening loss, it might have cost the Celtics a tiny bit of their recent good vibes.
If the Celtics ultimately fended off Philadelphia’s second-half charges, Boston would have left Wells Fargo Center having:
* Swept the season series 4-0
* Won eight of the past nine meetings dating to the start of the playoffs last year
* Won 14 of the past 17 meetings overall dating to the start of the 2016-17 season
Smart’s ejection, instead, might have forced Boston to give up a tiny bit of real estate inside the Sixers’ head. It gave an East rival a bit of confidence it probably didn’t deserve. Now, Philadelphia is firmly positioned to hold onto the No. 3 seed while Boston will have to scrap just to lock in a tiny sliver of homecourt advantage.
Yes, the 2018-19 Celtics just don’t make anything easy on themselves.
Not that the loss took away any of Boston’s swagger. Like when:
* Terry Rozier said, "I thought the confetti was going to drop,” playfully referencing Boston’s Game 3 win here in last year’s playoffs when game ops inadvertently triggered celebratory confetti in a game that was not over. Boston went on to prevail in overtime, then ended the series in 5 games.
* Marcus Morris, responding to a question about Joel Embiid’s 21 free throws in Wednesday’s game, asked, "What’s the season series?” Told it was 3-1 in Boston’s favor, Morris added, "About time. About time.” Pressed on if he was referencing how the Sixers finally got a big game for Embiid against Boston, Morris clarified, “No, about time they got a win. About time.”
Smart has to be, well, smarter. In a season of head-slapping moments, this is just another one for the long list. Still, this is no less than the third time this season where Smart has had a flareup, with Jayson Tatum having to corral him before he tried to fight J.R. Smith (preseason) and DeAndre Bembry (January) in two different instances earlier in the season.
As Stevens suggested, this is just part of the Marcus Smart Experience. The Celtics will live with these flareups — and the game(s) it costs them — if Smart produces his familiar batch of “winning plays” the other 80 games of the year and into the postseason.
The Celtics can take solace that Smart didn’t get himself tossed from a playoff game and that they hope it’s a reminder of how he needs to control his emotions when the postseason arrives.
"He knows,” said Kyrie Irving, Smart’s partner in Boston’s starting backcourt. "He took responsibility for it. He knows how much of a big piece he is for us. We need him out there, in terms of his smarts and him being out there, being aggressive on the defensive end.
"We don’t want to make any excuses. Those things can’t happen in terms of Smartie being ejected, especially when we’re in an environment like this. But we talked about it, we squashed it, and now we move on.”
It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Celtics and Sixers cross paths again. Both teams would need to upset one of the East’s top dogs (Milwaukee and Toronto) to set up an East Finals meeting should the seedings hold firm. In some ways, that’s always seemed like Boston’s best chance to actually sneak to the NBA Finals (or at least having Philadelphia soften up an opponent in the East semis). It might still be, but Philadelphia at least hinted that any head-to-head meeting wasn’t as much of a picnic as recent history suggested.
Smart’s ejection keeps the embers of a rivalry flickering. Embiid took to Instagram to celebrate the victory, posting an action shot from the game with the location listed as “Lametown,” a playful jab at Rozier calling Embiid “lame” during a recent television appearance.
Boston is now almost certainly locked into the No. 4 or 5 seed, something that seemed impossible when this group assembled for camp in September. A beefed up East, the burden of expectations, and this team’s inconsistencies have forced it to endure a much tougher playoff path than it should have been.
Two head-to-head matchups loom with Indiana, which could essentially decide who gets home court in Round 1. The Celtics should be heavily favored against the Oladipo-less Pacers regardless of location but, for once, these Celtics could make SOMETHING easier on themselves this year by securing that No. 4 spot.
One thing is certain after Wednesday’s game. This team really needs Smart on the court to be at their best. He wasn’t supposed to be a starter this season, even after a big offseason payday, but here he is, a vital piece whenever Boston actually plays to its potential.
He has to make better decisions but, really, that goes for the Celtics as a whole. Truth be told, this team would be a lot better off if they could get everyone on the roster to play with Smart’s intensity. It’s why Stevens can live with Smart’s outburst putting his team in a bad spot for one night.
Because they don’t have a chance to reach any of their loftier goals without Smart doing Smart things when the games truly matter.
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