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Celtics' Smart grows up down stretch with clutch play

Guard helps rally Boston from 16-point deficit to even series

POSTED: Apr 25, 2016 2:32 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen


Celtics guard Marcus Smart celebrates a victory against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Four.

— And so the young Celtics keep growing up, in increments of months -- or games. The latest to mature was Marcus Smart, the 22-year-old point guard who found himself being charged with stopping Atlanta's 6-8 power forward Paul Millsap down the stretch of Boston's stunning 104-95 overtime win in Game 4 Sunday.

Smart was giving up four inches and nine years -- not to mention the fact that Millsap, a three-time All-Star, had already scored 41 points. None of the typical defenders had been able to stop him. Then Smart received the assignment.

"Coach was like, 'You know what, we've got to try something new,'" said Smart, whose 20 points included an enormous stretch in the fourth quarter. "He looked at me and said, 'Marcus, you guard him."'

Three games remain -- including two in Atlanta - for the Hawks to exploit their advantages of size and experience. But in these last few days Boston coach Brad Stevens has seized control of a series that seemed out of reach for the Celtics. Having lost five of six to Atlanta this season following the Hawks' blowout win in Game 2, Stevens changed the dynamic by starting Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner (17 points, six assists and seven rebounds in Game 4). In the two games since Thomas has been played off the ball, he has become suddenly efficient (23 for 47 overall) and explosive (70 points, including 28 Sunday). His 3-pointer from the corner with a half-minute remaining in OT put Boston up 102-95 and revived memories of the noise when Ray Allen was making the same shots a few postseasons ago.

Then there is Jerebko, who as a hyperactive 6-10 power forward has spaced the floor for Thomas while also exploiting the space himself. He has generated 27 points on 18 shots in Boston's two wins, including 16 that were crucial Sunday. When Millsap opened the half with seven straight points to help push the Hawks' lead out to 62-46, it was Jerebko who replied with 10 points in three minutes, enabling Boston to regain the lead early in the fourth.

By then the big -- and perhaps the only -- issue for the Celtics was Millsap, who entered Game 4 shooting 31.3% overall (1 of 8 from the arc) for 8.7 points. In the first half alone he generated more field goals than in the previous three games by going 11 for 16 for 26 points with eight rebounds.

"He was scoring so many different ways," said Stevens. "I think we had him for 19 points in the post, all on different guys, so we were trying a bunch of different things. The only place that we were really going to have to consider doubling was the post, and I didn't want to do that because of the shooting. So we were going to try everyone until we got stops."

Perhaps Stevens would asked Avery Bradley to take a turn, but Boston's best defender has been sidelined by a hamstring injury since Game 1. The alternative was Smart, the No. 6 pick of the 2014 draft who has been vulnerable to injury because of the awkward crash-test-dummy positions he assumes while pushing beyond his limits. Earlier in this game he had landed hard on his back after somersaulting a drive over his own teammate Jared Sullinger.

"I think I gave at least every coach I've played for a heart attack at least once," said Smart. "You're going to mess up, you're not perfect but it's definitely a line between being aggressive and being in control."

The defensive assignment was not intimidating so much as it was liberating for Smart, who was hitting successive 3-pointers midway through the fourth after having gone 1-for-6 from that distance earlier.

"Marcus has had his ups and downs," said Stevens, who also praised Smart's earlier defensive work against Kyle Korver. "But Marcus on this stage -- and with his consistent work ethic and competitive spirit -- you really trust that good things will happen."

Smart used his strength to push Millsap out of the block as best he could, and with leverage he was able to discourage Millsap's attempts to put the ball on the floor. Millsap would score only four points over the remaining 14 minutes, including an 0-for-2 line in OT.

Stevens was quick to point out that Millsap had to be fatigued by the time Smart arrived.

"He just guarded me at the right time," agreed Millsap. But there is also the question of whether Millsap's success helped stray the Hawks out of rhythm. Only Kyle Korver (10 points on 11 shots) and Jeff Teague (13 on a horrendous 4 for 18 night) were able to join him in double-figures.

The bulk of Teague's scoring came in the final 50 seconds of regulation, when he responded to a huge 3-pointer by Jerebko with successive 3's of his own to transform a 4-point deficit into a 92-90 Atlanta advantage with 20.2 seconds to go. But Thomas knifed between Horford (who struggled for his five points after being diagnosed with a strained left groin suffered in Game 3) and Millsap with a scooping layup high off the glass. And then Teague, having wasted too many seconds, was unable to get off a game-winning 3-pointer as he lost his dribble at the buzzer going up against Thomas.

Can the Hawks regain the quick ball movement and paint-protection that worked so well for most of this season against Boston? Backup guard Dennis Schroder, at 22 their youngest player, appeared to have the self-confidence booed out of him by the Boston fans, who vilified him with every touch Sunday. Apparently they were angry with him for being hit in the head by Thomas, who avoided a suspension for Game 4.

"One of our most redeeming qualities as a team is the guys are fighters," said Stevens. "They never give up."

Will the Hawks be saying the same of themselves after Games 5 and 6? It is their turn to reply.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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