Marcus Smart, an NFL linebacker who simply masquerades as an NBA guard, had his eyes locked on quarterback Joel Embiid as the Celtics defensive line applied late-game pressure.
When tight end Al Horford cut across the middle, Smart strayed briefly from his man to prevent a checkdown but noticed Embiid never took his eyes off the downfield target that Smart had been guarding.
With a sidearm delivery, Embiid tried to muscle a cross-court throw to the corner where Tobias Harris waited with Philadelphia up two with under two minutes to play. The ball would never get there, though.
Smart untangled from Horford, shuffled one step backwards, and timed his leap before going full extension to intercept the pass.
Then, in one fluid motion without even touching the ground, Smart pushed the ball ahead to Jaylen Brown, who raced the length of the floor for the go-ahead, and-1 layup that had the entire Celtics roster spilling onto the court to excitedly pry him off the hardwood.
It was the quintessential Smart moment. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens would note after Boston scored the final 10 points for a 102-94 Game 3 triumph, “[Smart] just made a lot of winning plays … The guy is all about one thing and that’s winning."
Look, we knew Smart was going to be vital to Boston’s postseason success. Allow us to take a quick victory lap on that. When Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury in Game 1, Smart’s importance only escalated as he shuffled up to the first unit.
And while we should probably stop being surprised whenever he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, it still deserves every bit of spotlight because there’s simply not another player quite like Smart in the league.
There’s this, too: Smart spent the first half looking like a tackling dummy for the Sixers. He took a shot below the belt at one point, then got inadvertently elbowed in the back when Josh Richardson stumbled into him in the second quarter.
Smart, in obvious discomfort before he checked out, could be seen getting an Icy Hot rub down on the bench before trainers fitted him with one of those lumbar back supports that your grandfather wears to his weekly golf game.
And yet there was Smart, throwing himself into the Embiid mosh pit throughout the second half and making a bunch of key defensive plays late to give the Celtics a chance to surge ahead.
"I’m glad he’s on my team, I’ll tell you that much,” said Kemba Walker. "He’s so special. Defensively, he’s a monster, willing to take on any challenge, willing to do anything it takes to win a basketball game. He doesn’t care.
"You just need a guy like that. He’s our glue guy, whenever he’s playing like that he’s just special man. It’s really unbelievable to watch. That man can really, really guard anyone in the world. I just can’t see how he’s not in Defensive Player of the Year consideration. I just can’t, can’t see it. He’s unbelievable.”
Smart’s 3-point shot has defied him in the postseason, having connected on just one of 13 attempts in 101 minutes of floor time. In fact, he’s shooting just 29.2 percent overall (7 of 24) but his impact is undeniable.
Smart finished with 14 points while adding a team-high 8 rebounds and three assists in Game 3. His defense hasn’t been otherworldly — with the NBA’s defensive tracking data suggesting he’s allowed 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting. But he’s held Harris, by far his top assignment, to only three points and only two shot attempts in 11 minutes of matchup time. Harris’ lack of scoring output has left him the object of many Philly fans’ ire.
It is Smart’s knack for the well-timed big play that makes him the object of Celtics fans’ undying affection.
“That’s just what I do,” said Smart. "I’m able to make plays without the ball in my hand, without scoring, but I score the ball when I need to, when the team needs me to.
"We got guys that are on so that doesn’t require me to do a lot of scoring, so I find other ways to help the team and that’s just me being me, the best defensive player in this league that I know I am, that my teammates know I am, and opponents know. So when I come into this game I gotta be that every single night.”
Walker, who produced his best defensive game of the postseason, said Smart’s hustle and tenacity are infectious.
"When you have a guy like that going hard like he does, man, you have no choice but to raise your level,” said Walker. "That’s what he brings out of all of us. We know what we’re getting from Smart. We know he’s coming to kill and play extremely hard.
“When we see him diving on loose balls and guarding big guys and blocking shots and just being Smart, we have no choice. We have no choice but to raise our level to where he is.”
Oh, and that big-time interception? Here’s how Smart described the sequence.
"My guys know that, whenever I get my hands on the ball that they need to be ready to be able to run and get their hands ready because I’m making a pass,” said Smart. “My whole life I’ve been really good at reading that. When I get my hands on the ball, the first thing I’m doing is looking up.
"Before I actually touch the ball, my eyes are already up looking for who to pass it to, and then once I get the ball, just make the easy play and find the guy I need to throw it to.”
Yep, Smart always seems to be one play ahead of everyone else on the floor. How else can you explain how he keeps coming up with all those winning plays?