Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart had an open lane for a simple fast-break basket. Then he unnecessarily moved the ball behind his back and flubbed a layup.
A minute later, he had the ball again and hit an acrobatic circus shot on the baseline from behind the backboard. He drew a foul, too.
That was the Marcus Smart Experience in a nutshell on Thursday night: sometimes ugly, sometimes entertaining, at all times impactful. In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Smart had 24 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists in a game the Celtics thoroughly dominated, 127-102, to tie the best-of-seven series. He had only a single turnover in top-of-the-line playoff performances of his profession.
This season has seen the continuation of a remarkable shift for the 28-year-old Smart: There’s so much less ugly. He’s emerged as a gentle, reliable point guard who can greater than competently run Boston’s offense, at the same time as his efforts on the opposite end of the ground — he was named the N.B.A.’s defensive player of the 12 months — draw probably the most attention.
Smart missed the primary game of the series on Tuesday due to a foot sprain, and his absence was evident. The Celtics collapsed within the third quarter, when Smart’s talents for calming the offense down and anchoring the defense could have modified the sport.
Right from the opening tip on Thursday, Smart affected the sport. The Celtics first scored off a difficult cross-court pass from Smart to shooting guard Jaylen Brown. Smart immediately followed that with a harder-than-it-looked alley-oop to center Robert Williams III.
In the primary half, though, Smart shot a dismal 2 for 11 from the sphere. For many players, that will mean they were having a foul game. But Smart was top-of-the-line players on the court, due to his seven assists and nil turnovers. The Celtics led by 25 at halftime, and so they had outscored the Heat by 26 points with Smart on the ground.
“I’m not the form of coach that wishes to call a play each time down,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “I leave it in his hands, and he often makes the fitting decision.”
Smart didn’t benefit from the same form of trust earlier in his profession. Within the previous seven years of his N.B.A. journey, all with Boston, Smart was known mostly as a stalwart defensive player with a penchant for throwing up bad shots early within the shot clock and for making ill-advised passes. He was also, for probably the most part, a poor shooter from 3-point range. Smart had other attributes that made him a fan favorite, nonetheless, resembling his willingness to always dive to the ground for loose balls.
This 12 months, despite his perceived offensive limitations, Smart was handed the keys to the Celtics offense for the primary time. It was a dangerous decision. Smart had never been a start line guard for a complete season. He had never even been a full-time starter until the 2020-21 season. He had played behind star point guards like Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, two former All-Stars who had made their living as scorers. But Walker’s injuries last 12 months gave Smart a likelihood a get a taste of being the predominant point guard.
Smart initially struggled adjusting to his latest role, as did the remainder of the Celtics. In his first 50 games this season, Smart averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists. Boston’s offense often looked stuck within the mud. After a November loss to the Chicago Bulls, Smart incurred the ire of his teammates when he publicly criticized the 2 best players on the team, Brown and Jayson Tatum, for not passing the ball more. Smart’s underwhelming point guard play contributed to Boston’s lackadaisical 25-25 start.
But then got here the turnaround. In Smart’s final 21 games of the regular season, he averaged 13.2 points and seven.1 assists on 43.2 percent shooting. He also morphed right into a more reliable shooter. While there have been definitely other aspects, Smart’s improvement coincided with the Celtics’ surge from fringe playoff team to N.B.A. finals contender. Tatum said Thursday that Smart had given the Celtics “one other guy who can handle the ball under pressure and get us organized and get us in position where we must be.”
His strong playmaking has carried over into the playoffs. In the primary round against the Nets, Smart averaged 16.5 points and seven assists in Boston’s four-game sweep. Against the Milwaukee Bucks within the second round, Smart averaged 14 points and 5.7 assists, while shooting 39.4 percent from behind the 3-point line.
“Being the purpose guard that I’m, I take a number of pressure off our guys in order that they don’t should attempt to force it as much in order that they might be who they’re,” Smart said after Thursday’s game.
That is all while Smart has often been tasked with guarding the opposition’s best players. In the primary round, those were Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He followed that up by switching between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday within the second round. Against Miami, Smart was asked to attempt to decelerate Jimmy Butler on Thursday night.
Smart increasingly has found himself rescuing the Celtics along with his offense in addition to his defense. When the Heat were making a third-quarter run in Game 2, it was Smart who took it upon himself to stop it. Along with his circus shot over the backboard, Smart hit multiple 3s to stop the bleeding. He scored 11 points within the quarter, including the highlight of the sport. The Heat had cut the result in 17 and the Miami crowd was suddenly re-engaged. Smart dribbled the ball up, bounced a crossover dribble between his legs, causing Heat forward Max Strus to tumble backward to the ground. As he scrambled to his feet, Smart calmly improved and made a free-throw line jumper.
That was the brand new Marcus Smart Experience. Undisturbed under pressure. Reliable. And still entertaining.
“That’s what I got drafted here to do, and I just waited my turn,” Smart said. “And I’m blessed to be in this case and to have the chance to exit and show what I can do. And I believe everybody within the organization — on the earth — has seen what I can do at that time guard position.”