LOS ANGELES — Marcus Smart took the brunt of the fall on his right hip — the same hip he bruised earlier in this west coast road trip — then practically disappeared from sight while sliding into a courtside announcer's booth.
Most players wouldn’t have even suited up with what Smart’s been dealing with lately but this game meant too much. So here he was, in minute 40 of his night, flailing on the court trying desperately to give his team one last chance to steal a victory.
With the Clippers up three and looking for a knockout punch in overtime, Smart had been hounding Leonard above the 3-point arc, thwarting the simple handoff that Lou Williams was trying to complete. The dance with Leonard eventually extended out near the midcourt logo before Smart swatted away Williams’ pass attempt. Smart took one step, toed the sideline and then leapt, somehow throwing the ball off Leonard’s leg while crashing to the ground so viciously that courtside spectators covered their mouths at the sight.
What. A. Play. pic.twitter.com/NO6oR7eEux— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 21, 2019
It was the quintessence of Smart. And maybe these 2019-20 Celtics, too. This Boston team seems to have dug into the archives and emerged as the scrappy us-against-the-world hoopsters that previously typified the Brad Stevens era.
Smart’s hustle got them one final gasp but Kemba Walker’s 3-point offering got blocked by Leonard at the buzzer as a finally full-strength Clippers squad emerged with a 107-104 overtime triumph at Staples Center.
Smart, an ice bucket dispatched from in front of him, had a quick huddle with trainers after the game, then slipped on a pair of basketball shorts bearing his name and number and stepped in front of the cameras to offer a declaration.
"We believe truly that we can compete with anybody in this league,” said Smart before stressing how every possession matters and lamenting how Boston let a double-digit lead slip away.
"They’re really good, and we’ve just got to be a little better.”
Rarely will we buy the oft-floated notion that a team can find positives in a loss. No, wins are the goal in this league. But lingering behind the obvious disappointment that Celtics players expressed after Wednesday’s game was an understanding that they just went toe-to-toe with the league’s title favorite and nearly toppled them.
Or, as Smart told it, “We shot the ball very poorly, our defense wasn’t great, but we still were in the game — plain and simple. Clean up a couple things and it’s probably a different outcome and we’re talking different about what happened tonight.”
The Celtics might have actually learned more about themselves in this game than most nights during their double-digit winning streak. This game had been dubbed a measuring-stick game and, downplay it as the teams tried, Boston certainly seemed to get a better gauge on where it stands with Wednesday’s tilt.
The Celtics realized that Jayson Tatum is a bonafide late-game killer. Tatum, already building an impressive resume of crunch-time heroics this season, left Paul George crumpled on the Staples Center court with a step-back move before hitting an overtime-forcing 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation.
Tatum finished with a game-high 30 points despite the fact that the Clippers swarmed him with the trio of Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley. But Tatum still nearly willed his team to a win.
"I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG. Especially PG, that was one of my favorite players,” said Tatum. "This is the opportunity you look for, especially the bright lights, big stage, you don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect.”
The Celtics learned yet again that Smart is the heart and soul of this team. He not-so-subtly hinted on Wednesday morning that the Clippers showdown was all the reason he needed to duct tape his battered body together and play through those maladies. He spent the night hounding Leonard, George, and Williams. What’s more, Smart logged 40 total minutes, seconds less than team-leader Tatum, and chipped in 15 points on 7-of-20 shooting. That he took more shots than Walker (17) is surprising and Smart’s 3-point shooting remains in a mini funk (1 for 11) but he made multiple plays in crunch time that at least gave Boston a chance to steal the win.
The Celtics learned that they can be competitive with an elite opponent even when Walker is off his game. Walker made only 4 of 17 shots for 13 points. He had nine rebounds but committed six turnovers over 38:44. Jaylen Brown had a poor shooting night as well.
"I just made a lot of bad decisions tonight,” said Walker. "I've just got to be better at the end of the day, be better for my teammates. But we played hard. We did everything we can do to still stay in the game and try to win the game but, as an individual, I definitely would love to have been better for my teammates.”
The Celtics learned that their big-man issue might not be as pressing as some make it seem. Daniel Theis continues to give this team solid minutes. He’ll land in the highlights because Leonard put him on a fourth-quarter poster but Theis grabbed 14 rebounds including seven on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.
It was fair to be skeptical of Boston's potential before the LA visit and now it seems safe to suggest that Boston might just be a legitimate threat to top-tier East foes Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
These Celtics have heart. They have grit. They don’t have a very big margin for error but, the way they play, they won’t ever be out of a game. Yes, like Smart said, this team truly can compete with anybody in the league.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.