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Smart returns, makes all the difference as Celtics rout Heat to even series

It doesn’t take a seasoned NBA scout or an advanced analytics guru to explain the difference in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals:

Marcus Smart. And Al Horford.

The two veteran starters were cleared to play Thursday after missing Game 1 and the Celtics looked like a different team. After a slow start that saw the Celtics fall behind 18-8, Smart sparked a 34-10 run that saw the Celtics go up by double digits and start to run away and hide from the Heat.

Boston led 70-45 at the half and was never threatened again, shooting 20-of-40 from 3 and cruising to a 127-102 win to even the Eastern Conference Finals at 1-1. Game 3 is in Boston on Saturday night.

“Just our poise. We were under control,” Smart said during his walk-off interview about the difference with him and Horford on the floor. “Me and Al, when things kind of got a little spicy for us, we settled ourselves down. Me and Al, we’ve been doing this a while, we’ve been doing it the longest on this team, and we know what it takes.”

When things got spicy for the Celtics in Game 1, they wilted from the Heat pressure. Jimmy Butler went off for 41, and the game was never close after a massive third quarter from Miami. In Game 2, it was Marcus Smart on Butler early, and while the Heat star still got his — 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting on the night — the other Miami players never got going because the Celtics’ switching and rotations were tighter (and with better defenders on the floor). Gabe Vincent was the next highest scorer with 14, and Tyler Herro had 11 but needed 11 shots to get there.

For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum got going — 20 points in the first half, 27 for the game — but he got help. Jaylen Brown had 24 points and Grant Williams had 19 off the bench.

But Smart was the difference — he finished with 24 points and 12 assists.

In Game 1, Tatum had to bring the ball up and initiate the offense. Heat defenders loaded up on him, and the result was Tatum pounding the ball a lot and then struggling to create against multiple waves of defenders, leading to turnovers. In Game 2, Smart initiated the offense, allowing Tatum to be the second or third Celtic to touch the ball, letting him get it in a position he liked and could attack.

Smart and Horford made a huge impact on defense as well. In Game 1, Butler and the Heat ball handlers used the Celtics switches to hunt weak links. But with defensive stalwarts in Smart and Horford on the court, there were no easy switches into soft spots to attack, and Miami’s offense struggled to generate good looks in the halfcourt. Boston pushed Miami to attack with their weakest players and not having Butler or Bam Adebayo as the primary shooters hurt Miami. Also, the Heat not getting stops or turnovers took away their transition game and those easy buckets.

Two games. Two blowouts.

Now the series heads to Boston with both teams looking to apply the lessons of the first two games. As for fans, we’re hoping for a close and entertaining game in the fourth quarter.