Watching Norm Powell race his way, Marcus Smart’s mind flashed back to the end of Game 6.
In the final minute of the second overtime on Wednesday, Powell sprinted in alone after a Jayson Tatum turnover with only Smart back to defend. Smart tried to strip the ball free but instead got whistled for a foul as Powell completed a three-point play that essentially sealed Toronto’s win and forced Friday’s Game 7.
Smart wasn’t about to let history repeat itself. Boston was clinging to a two-point lead with under a minute to play when Powell came at him with a head of steam again. A backpedaling Smart forced him to the left side then somehow swatted a layup attempt off the glass with an extended left arm.
A winning play. On the Game 7 stage. Quintessential Smart.
“When he caught the ball, in my mind I was just telling myself, ‘He has to dunk it, I’m not going to give him no foul, I’m just going to meet him up top and see who wins that battle,’” said Smart. "I bet on myself 110 percent of the time, and I’m first team All-Defense for a reason, and I believe in that wholeheartedly.”
Of course it was Smart who produced the game-saving moment that lifted Boston to a 92-87 triumph and secured the Celtics' spot in the Eastern Conference finals. In a dogfight of a series, it was Smart who refused to let it slip away.
“That block was so special,” said teammate Kemba Walker. “It was unreal. That’s why he’s first team all-defense. He shows it night in and night out. He made so many huge plays tonight. A lot of the things he does just go unnoticed. But that kid, he’s special, man. He’s on a different level at that end of the basketball court.”
During a postgame interview with TNT, Jayson Tatum noted, “He made the play of the series … If you going to war, if you’re in a Game 7, [Smart is] who you want on your team.”
Thanks to Smart, the Celtics went to bed in the early hours of Saturday morning as the highest remaining seed in the Eastern Conference. A path to the NBA Finals that once seemed murky and bump-filled is now clear before them.
All that stands between Boston and the team’s first Finals trip in a decade is the Heat. The Celtics, after sweeping the Sixers and vanquishing the defending champion Raptors, have asserted themselves as the favorite in the conference. Still, they have to prove it once more against a grimy Heat squad that is gushing with confidence after ousting the top-seeded Bucks.
It’s another series that will require Smart’s fingerprints be all over it if Boston wants a chance to compete for a title.
For the first time since LeBron James and the Heatles thwarted the Big Three’s final true championship push in 2012, the Celtics and Heat are back on the East’s biggest stage. The rosters aren’t quite as glitzy but this is two teams with desires to rule the East for the foreseeable future.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects Boston as a firm favorite (winning 69 percent of simulations) based on season performance. Alas, neither side is quite the team we saw for most of the regular season. The Heat upgraded their roster before the season paused and trots out a combination of veteran grit and young grace when you surround Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, and Jae Crowder with Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson.
The Celtics waited all season to get healthy only to lose Gordon Hayward to an ankle sprain in Game 1 of the opening round. Smart elevated to the starting role in Hayward’s absence and might have been the MVP of the Toronto series for both his typical defensive efforts and big-time 3-point shooting.
The big question hovering over Celtics-Heat is when Hayward might be back on the court. Fresh out of quarantine, he got up shots on Friday night before Game 7.
Asked about Hayward's availability, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, "I think he’ll be back at some point in that [Heat] series, but I don’t know when.”
If Hayward isn’t ready to go when the series tips on Tuesday night, the Celtics have the luxury of leaning on Smart in his starter role. He was fantastic in key moments throughout the series but especially with the late-game block on Friday.
It wasn't exactly LeBron James’ chasedown on Andre Iguodala from the 2016 Finals. But, considering the magnitude of the moment and the state of the series, it was pretty darn good.
And the block encapsulated these Celtics as a whole, a team that finds a way to make the big play in a key moment.
"This is a great group, tough group, resilient group,” said Jaylen Brown. "We got a lot of heart, a lot of fight about ourselves. We don’t back down from challenges and that’s what we need from each other. It’s inspiring just to be in the locker room with these guys because a lot of them, some of them are not even playing and they’re sweating because they feel like they’re in the game, too. …
"That’s what it’s about. It’s about will, determination, resiliency -- it’s a lot of that stuff that you can’t find on the stat sheet. That’s what this game is about.”