The Boston Celtics dominated the first half of Game 1 in their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Miami Heat. But they fell apart in the third quarter and lost the game, which saw them fall into a quick 1-0 series deficit. It was clear that missing key players such as Marcus Smart and Al Horford had come back to bite them.
But in Game 2, both returned to the court, and after a slow start, Boston eventually took the lead late in the first quarter and never looked back, as they throttled the Heat on their way to a 25-point victory. So it wasn’t surprising to see the Celtics look like themselves again in Game 2 after their horrendous third quarter in Game 1.
A big reason for that is because of Smart himself. Often viewed as a defensive-minded guard who was a liability on offense, Smart has completely changed his style of play this season, and he’s made himself a vital part of the C’s success. It’s telling how much they struggled without his calming presence behind the controls of the offense when nothing could go right in Game 1. In Game 2, that wasn’t an issue.
“[I take] a lot of pride,” Smart said of his point guard play after the game. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career. That’s what I got drafted here to do. I just waited my turn. I’m blessed to be in the situation I am to have the opportunity to go out and show what I can do, and I think everybody in the organization, in the world, is seeing what I can do at that point guard position.” - Marcus Smart, ESPN
Smart has finally become the point guard the Celtics envisioned he could become
Throughout his first seven seasons, Smart was one of the most polarizing offensive players in the NBA. Occasionally he would look like a borderline superstar, nailing a tough barrage of three-pointers and layups in the paint to help his team win games. But more often than not, those threes would rattle off the back iron, or his layups would become wilder and wilder. It left fans, and even his teammates, confused as to why Smart thought he could make such shots.
This season though, Smart has matured into the point guard Boston needed him to be. His numbers on the season don’t look much different than prior seasons, but his play passes the eye test. Smart has reduced his shooting volume while actively looking for ways to get his teammates involved.
Smart functions better as a third or fourth option behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and he finally figured that out this season. Smart also is beginning to realize his offensive strengths may not be limited to just shooting threes. Instead, he’s become more comfortable using his strength to create open looks in the paint, and while he’s been a solid finisher at the rim, he’s beginning to use that skill set to his advantage more and more.
Smart’s offensive performance in Game 2 clearly displayed the strides he has taken this season. Despite missing nine of his first ten shots, Smart finished the game with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists. He took control in the second half when Boston’s offense went through a bit of a dry spell and ensured the Heat wouldn’t pull off a miraculous comeback. A year ago, this sort of offensive production from Smart would have been the cause for celebration; now, though, it’s just a typical Smart performance.
Of course, Smart is still a menace on defense too
It would be remiss to mention Smart’s contributions without touching on his defensive capabilities, which have somehow gotten better this season. Smart, the 2021-22 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is just what Boston was missing on defense in Game 1 when Miami’s star forward Jimmy Butler poured in 41 points to lead the Heat to a victory.
This time around, Butler had 28 points again, but almost none came against Smart. Butler is hunting mismatches with a ton of success early in this series, but his life becomes much more difficult when Boston can get Smart on him. Smart can also slow down Miami’s second-best scorer, Tyler Herro, in a way that nobody else on the roster really can.
Smart has morphed into a phenomenal two-way player that has become instrumental to Boston’s success this season. They wouldn’t be three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals without him. And they are going to need him to continue to perform at an extremely high level if they want to get to their final destination.