BOSTON — "Keep leaving me open."
That’s what Marcus Smart barked at the Atlanta bench after splashing a 27-foot 3-pointer to put Boston out front by 4 in the final minute of Friday’s win over the visiting Hawks at TD Garden.
It was both a moment of obvious hubris and exactly what you’d probably expect from Smart. He felt disrespected that the Hawks kept going under screens and challenging him to shoot and, in one of the game’s biggest moments with Boston clinging to a one-point lead, he calmly buried what proved to be the winning bucket.
Remember that this is a player who was shooting 21 percent beyond the arc since mid-November. Smart was a frigid 3-for-15 on 3-pointers since returning from a double eye infection last week. And, yet, in the quintessential “No! No! No! YES!” moment, Smart hit the big shot and then let the visiting bench know about it.
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Remember, there had been an eight-game stretch early in the season in which Smart morphed into Steph Curry and splashed 45.6 percent of his whopping 7.1 3-point attempts per game, culminating with a five triple night in a win at, appropriately, Golden State.
A certain writer, operating with Smart-like confidence, declared that it was time to stop being surprised by Smart’s 3-point abilities. Smart promptly went 5-for-29 beyond the arc over the next three games and hasn’t really pulled himself out of the funk, his eye issues certainly not helping matters.
But it’s that irrational confidence that makes Smart so great. Most players in a shooting funk would pass up that shot; Smart never hesitated. Moments later, he corralled the rebound from Daniel Theis’ game-saving block on Trae Young and caused a flareup as he tried to march over Young in a modern version of Allen Iverson and Ty Lue.
Yup, it’s all part of the Smart Experience. And his teammates can’t get enough of it.
"We should all feel blessed to have a teammate like [Smart], man,” said Enes Kanter. "Both ends. Not just on the court, off the court, he brings so much energy, so much toughness, and so much on the table that we should all feel blessed to have a teammate and a friend like Marcus.”
Smart finished Friday’s game with 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting with a team-high nine assists and three steals over 35:30. This is a player who, a week ago, was just hoping to get his normal vision back. He praised the heavens for having his minutes restriction lifted before Friday’s game and the Celtics were glad he was still available in those closing moments.
Smart embraced the challenge of defending Young, the East’s top All-Star vote-getting guard based on first returns released Thursday. The two went at each other on Friday night and Smart took umbrage when Young elbowed him in the face on a drive in the first half.
It might have contributed to the late flareup when Smart seemed to intentionally walk over a prone Young in the final second. Young had crashed to the parquet after Theis blocked his shot with 3 seconds to go and Smart was looking down towards Young as he tried to step over.
Young got whistled for a foul when he shoved at Smart’s legs. Tempers flared, with Atlanta’s Alex Len confronting Smart in the aftermath. Double techs were issued, Smart hit the first free throw with 0.3 seconds to go, then intentionally missed the second to end the game.
Smart suggested afterward that he had no other direction to travel but over Young, though the replay seems to suggest otherwise.
"I was going to go around him but where to? If I go to the right, I'm out of bounds. I didn't see anybody to my left, I didn't want to go that way,” said Smart. "The game was still going. I made a play. I was going forward. He stuck his hand out and tried to trip me, caught the foul, and then Alex Len got up on me.”
Young wanted to see the tape before passing his own judgment.
"I haven't watched the video. Everybody in the locker room was telling me different things,” said Young. "I ain't trying to really get into that. People can watch and see and judge what happened.”
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When Smart was asked about Young getting mad at the step-over attempt, Smart noted, "He probably did. I got mad at him when he elbowed me in my face, too. So there we go.”
Added Smart: "Me and Trae Young got into something, and [Len] came out of nowhere and just grabbed me, and I just told [Len], 'Don't grab. Watch out. This has got nothing to do with you. Just don't grab me.’ That was it. I pushed him off of me, and walked away.”
Just another day at the office for Smart, where his calling card is antagonizing opponents and making key plays. Smart did admit that it was a challenge defending Young.
“It’s tough. He’s a great player,” said Smart. "His ability to shoot the ball makes it even harder. So you’ve just gotta stay the course. You can’t get mad when he makes a few of them … especially those long 3s that he shoots. You’ve just gotta keep going and keep contesting and just try to wear on him so when it comes to the fourth quarter those legs he had in the first half ain’t there as much … and hopefully he started missing some shots.”
The Hawks had been hoping Smart would miss late, too. But, in typical Smart fashion, he saved his best moments for when it mattered most.
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