BOSTON — The most notable sequence of Marcus Smart’s historic night came after he set a new Boston Celtics franchise record for 3-pointers in a game.
With 36.9 seconds to play and Smart at the wheel of Boston’s frenetic comeback attempt, Brad Stevens drew up an absolute gem coming out of a timeout. Smart, on the sideline opposite the Boston bench, waited patiently for the Suns’ defense to commit, then lobbed a perfect feed towards the rim for a curling Gordon Hayward.
Only Hayward got caught in between a dunk and a layup. He put it off the glass a little too strong and it caught the side rim as Devin Booker scrambled in for the rebound while the entire Garden let out an audible gasp.
LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.
Hayward fouled Booker, then stood paralyzed, like a Fortnite player after a wifi dropout, in the charge circle. While a couple of teammates covered their mouths in disbelief on the bench, Hayward glared up at the JumboTron, hands on his hips trying to process a miss that would have made it a one-possession game.
Standing about 30 feet away, Smart starting an encouraging clap. Then walked all the way to Hayward, who wore a thousand-yard stare. When Smart got close, he offered a couple of encouraging pats on the chest before wrapping his left arm around Hayward then added a couple of backside pats as players finally made their way to the other end of the floor.
"I've been in that moment. I've been there where you miss a crucial play, a crucial bucket, or make a mistake that you think at the time cost the game for you,” said Smart, who scored a career-high 37 points while making a team-record 11 3-pointers during a 123-119 loss.
"But I told him keep your head up. You're OK. You missing that is not why we are down and, if we lose the game, it's not why we lost the game. You're going to get more opportunities and get more wide-open layups. Just knock down the next one.”
We’re admittedly guilty of reflecting too much on last season’s woes but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that it was a year ago this week when, after Boston missed a final shot attempt in Orlando, Kyrie Irving stalked after Hayward, arms out in exasperation, wondering why Irving hadn’t gotten the ball for the final attempt.
Smart, as competitive as anyone in the world, could have been forgiven if he reacted poorly to Hayward’s miss. An impossible late-fourth-quarter double-digit comeback would have been the perfect exclamation point on Smart’s career night. This article would have been all about Smart’s absurd shooting and how he shuffled into Boston’s top 5 in career 3-pointers if the Celtics pull out the win.
Instead, it’s about how Smart’s greatest value is that he just gets it.
This is the part where we’re supposed to lobby for Smart to be named captain of the Celtics. Except it’s not really necessary. Stevens doesn’t love the idea of captains, yearns to empower everyone on the team, and nobody needs to add a “C” next to Smart’s name on the roster printout to know who is the primary leader of this group.
It’s Smart, warts and all. The same guy who ripped off his jersey and stomped off the floor after getting tossed from an unsightly loss to the Pistons is the same guy who knew in the moment on Saturday that he had to lift a teammate up after a stomach-punch sequence.
Smart is the same guy who stood in front of reporters after Saturday’s game, chastised the team’s recent defensive efforts, then wrapped Hayward in a giant bearhug from behind before leaving the locker room.
“[Smart] was just like, ‘Move on, it’s all good, stay with us.’ But in the moment it’s hard to let that one go,” said Hayward. "We needed that bucket for sure. We still had a chance there, but certainly needed that one.”
Hayward, riding a bit of a roller coaster of consistency since returning from a foot injury on Christmas Day, shut his eyes Saturday night with that miss undoubtedly on replay in his mind. But he’d probably be beating himself up a bit more if Smart and his teammates weren’t so eager to let him know that that one miss didn’t swing Saturday’s game.
Smart turned in the shooting performance of a lifetime on Saturday night. The Celtics were playing without Kemba Walker (sore knee) and Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb) and Smart took full advantage of the available shots. He hoisted a staggering 25 attempts, including a team-record 22 3-pointers, but made 13 shots overall including the 11 beyond the arc, besting the team’s previous record mark of nine 3-point makes.
Smart's 37 points also shattered his previous best scoring night — 27 points versus Cleveland in the 2017 playoffs — by double digits. Smart had posted a season-high 24 points in Milwaukee on Thursday night and produced the first consecutive 20+ point nights of his career with Saturday’s outburst.
Click here to listen and subscribe to the Celtics Talk Podcast
In typical Smart fashion, he wasn’t in much of a mood to celebrate after a loss.
"Right now, [the record] means nothing. I’d trade all that in for a win, especially with the way this team has been playing,” said Smart. "I’d rather have the win than the record. I mean, obviously it’s a great accomplishment. It just shows the hard work that I’ve been putting in is paying off.
"But I’d rather trade that in for the win.”
As for Hayward, he finds himself at the center of many fans' frustrations. To some, the late-game miss is only more evidence that Hayward just isn’t the same player, even further removed from his ankle injury. Despite some excellent nights this season, especially before a hand injury sidelined him for a month, some fans are eager for Boston to move on from the Hayward experience.
Frustrations are natural when a maximum-salary player struggles. Hayward certainly hasn’t played with the same aggression lately — at least not consistently — and it was fair to wonder if he was feeling 100 percent healthy.
Hayward admitted at Saturday’s morning shootaround that his foot remains an issue but not one that he believes is contributing to his inconsistencies. When multiple questions asked whether his foot/ankle woes contributed to his key miss, Hayward bristled a bit.
“It has nothing to do with that,” said Hayward. “I missed a layup. So that’s it.”
Some will continue to scream for a Hayward deal, picking out whatever overpriced big man they think will improve Boston’s ability to compete with East rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The fact is that Boston’s best chance to compete this year might hinge simply on keeping its five best players healthy and figuring out how they all work best together.
The Celtics need Hayward. Smart recognized that on Saturday.
Injuries have made everything a challenge lately. A revolving-door starting lineup has hindered chemistry and continuity. This team has needs beyond size and it wouldn’t require moving either Smart or Hayward to obtain the shooting that Boston’s bench so clearly needs. If you want to scream for Danny Ainge to make a move, start there.
A relentless schedule is forcing Boston to address its defensive slippage on the fly. Hayward doesn’t need to make that layup if Boston doesn’t allow Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to get hot at the start of the game.
The Celtics are in a funk and it’s going to take a lot of effort to pull themselves out of this skid. The schedule remains daunting through the end of the month and the barrage of games will force the team to make tweaks on the fly.
Hayward needs to be better. He knows it. Smart knows that little good could have come from overreacting to a miscue. The Celtics will be better in the long run for the way Smart handled that situation.
It’ll mean a lot more than any of the 37 points he scored on Saturday night.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.