BOSTON — On a night when Marcus Smart did all the typical Marcus Smart things — diving into the crowd to save a loose ball, standing up for a teammate after a hard foul, making a timely steal when his team needed it most — everyone from his teammates to LeBron James gushed about the impact he has when he’s on the court.
The Celtics improved to 8-2 since Smart returned from thumb surgery late in Boston’s first-round triumph over the Milwaukee Bucks, and his combination of hustle, grit and toughness has moved Boston to two wins away from an improbable trip to the NBA Finals.
Smart finished with 11 points on a mere 3-of-9 shooting but added nine assists, five rebounds and four steals over 31 minutes in Boston’s 107-94 triumph in Game 2 at TD Garden. Smart was a team-best plus-21 overall in plus/minus.
Those numbers can’t quantify some of his most impactful moments.
“He was born with his hands dirty,” Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown said. “I’m just happy he’s on our side. Today was a tremendous effort on one of the biggest stages we’ve all played on. I commend Smart for coming with that hard hat that he always has.”
Smart missed the final 15 games of the regular season after tearing a ligament in his right thumb while diving for a loose ball in a game against the Indiana Pacers on March 11. He was cleared to return for Game 5 of Boston’s series against the Bucks, and his efforts that night might have prolonged Boston’s season.
In Tuesday’s Game 2, it was quintessential Smart, as his handprints were all over Boston’s rally from a double-digit first-half deficit, and then salted away the win late.
The Celtics were clinging to a single-digit lead early with under nine minutes to play when Marcus Morris misfired on a jumper. Smart, who had been jousting with Kevin Love under the basket, swooped behind Jeff Green, who had hauled in the rebound, and managed to poke the ball free. As it bounced in front of the Cavaliers’ bench, Green just watched while Smart lunged to tap the ball out to teammate Jayson Tatum before sailing into the feet of the Cavaliers coaching staff and the fans seated courtside.
The Celtics didn’t score on the possession, but it exemplified the effort that Boston put in while rallying out of a double-digit first-half hole and keeping the Cavaliers at arm’s length in the final frame.
Cleveland was up 11 in the final minute of the first half, but Smart assisted on a Morris bucket, then picked off a James feed near midcourt before feeding Morris again to trim the deficit to seven.
“I think Marcus always makes plays at the right time,” said James, who raved about Smart’s ability to play multiple positions and impact the game as a creator.
It was Smart who confronted Cleveland’s J.R. Smith for what Smart believed was a dangerous push of a defenseless Al Horford late in the fourth quarter. Smith got a flagrant foul, and Smith and Smart were assessed double technicals for their flare-up.
“One of my guys was down, and I took offense to it,” Smart said.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens knows that the stats can’t quite measure Smart’s impact.
“I think he’s as tough as they come, right? He’s a true competitor,” Stevens said. “He matches his intensity with a physical toughness.
“People talk about him all the time. Sometimes they focus on things that don’t matter, and the other times they focus on that he impacts winning. We are really glad he’s on our team.”
Cavaliers coach Ty Lue was asked about Smart’s impact and noted, “Same impact he always has: just winning basketball. He makes winning plays. He makes tough plays. If it’s 50/50 balls, he’s going to get it. If it’s a loose ball, offensive rebound they need to have, he’s going to get it. We’ve got to be able to find someone who can match his toughness.”