BOSTON -- With just under six minutes to play, the Boston Celtics were at a crossroads.
Boston led by as many as 25 points over the Atlanta Hawks, and yet the Celtics soon found themselves in a fight in which the score was tied at 112.
Boston’s defense was not very good up to that point in the game.
The Celtics offense wasn’t shabby, but it wasn’t clicking well enough to cover up the problems on defense.
So the Celtics wound up doing what they seemingly always do in those situations - lean on Marcus Smart.
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“You can go through a lot of our games that were close, that we end up pulling away or a lot of games like this where you win late, and he makes the play where he just rips the ball away,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
With the scored tied at 112, Smart stole the ball from Atlanta’s Trae Young which led to a 3-pointer by Jaylen Brown to put Boston ahead 115-112.
Smart would steal the ball later on in the fourth from Young again, resulting in another basket for Brown that pushed Boston’s lead to 121-112.
Boston would go on to win 129-120 over the Hawks with Smart finishing with a near double-double of 16 points and nine assists along with a season high-tying five steals.
“He just gets a ball that he’s not supposed to get, gets his hands on a ball that very few people will get their hands on, and he did a great job,” Stevens said.
While Smart’s improved offensive game has drawn increased attention, his focus night-in, night-out is to have a great defensive presence regardless of who he is assigned to defend.
“For me, especially beginning of the game I try to make them uncomfortable as I can,” Smart said. “Usually guys take their time at the beginning of a game. I’m trying to speed them up as much as I can; kind of get them off their rhythm.”
And while there is a clear edict from Stevens and the coaching staff that the team has to play better defensively, all agree that the Celtics playing at a great level defensively begins more times than not with the play of Smart.
“We kind of lean on him for that,” Stevens said. “He’s … that’s his uniqueness, is being able to come up with plays and balls that other people can’t do.”
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