addByline("Marc D'Amico", "Celtics.com", "Marc_DAmico");
WASHINGTON – Brad Stevens has said time and time again this season that Marcus Smart has the unique ability to raise the energy level of his teammates.
He wasn’t kidding.
Smart’s unique talent was on full display Monday night in our nation’s capital, as he nearly led the Celtics to victory after they trailed by 23 points during the second half.
He picked the Celtics up and put them on his shoulders; he made them believe when believing seemed impossible.
As described by teammate Evan Turner, “Tonight, he was willing everybody, just saying, ‘We can come back. We can get into this lead, get it down to 10 and we can win.’”
Smart made quick work of turning those words of encouragement into reality.
Stevens called Smart’s number with 5:21 remaining in the third quarter. At that moment, Boston trailed Washington by 21 points. A victory didn’t seem like a long shot at that time; it actually felt like an impossibility. Smart quickly changed that notion with his effort at both ends of the floor.
The point guard checked in at the 5:21 mark and made an immediate impact on the game. Smart assisted on Boston’s next two field goals, and by the end of the quarter, he had racked up eight points, three assists and two steals. More importantly, he had completely altered the tenor of the contest.
Smart’s three free throws with 58.3 seconds remaining in the third quarter cut Washington’s lead all the way down to 12 points. His once unbelievable words were now realistic. The Celtics could actually win this game.
The rest of Boston’s team followed Smart’s lead for the remainder of the contest – all 23 minutes of it. Every player who stepped onto the court alongside him began to exhibit his level of energy. They tipped passes. They dove for loose balls. They shot with confidence. They defended with a fury.
Before anyone knew it, Washington’s 23-point lead had vanished. Boston took its first lead since the first quarter with 3:27 remaining in regulation.
As the two teams battled through crunch time of regulation and two overtime sessions, Stevens continued to lean on Smart rather than return four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo to the court. Smart played 27:08 of the final 27:21 of the contest, and no one, not even Rondo, could question that fact.
The rookie continued to play at a high level at both ends of the court until the final buzzer sounded. He wound up tallying 15 points over the final 21-plus minutes of the game. What stood out to his teammates even more so than the points, however, were his momentum-shifting plays at the other end.
“He just changes the pace of the game, especially on defense,” said Kelly Olynyk. “He’s up on people, making plays on the defensive end, whether it’s steals, a couple of charges, or just making it tough, wearing guys down.”
Turner had a front row seat to watch that top-notch defense. He played played alongside Smart for the final 21-plus minutes of the game and later explained what he saw on the court.
“His defense. His tenacity,” Turner stated. “You can tell a lot of other guards don’t like going up against him, for the most part. Once they feel his strength and stuff, they look back and kind of say, ‘This kid’s for real.’”
John Wall and company learned that the hard way Monday night. Smart was the key reason as to why Wall committed an astounding nine turnovers in the game. Smart was the key reason as to why the Celtics were able to erase what seemed to be an insurmountable deficit. Boston followed his lead, and when it did so, it was nearly unstoppable.
This was a long time coming for Smart. He had missed nearly four weeks with a sprained left ankle and barely played during his first three games back. He was unable to do what he does best – lift his teammates up – for so long, but that streak ended Monday night.
“I missed it a lot,” Smart said of energizing his teammates and affecting the game. “I eat and sleep basketball and it was taken away from me for a while and it felt good to finally be back with these guys and make an impact tonight.”
What stood out Monday night wasn’t the fact that Smart made an impact on the game. It was how he made an impact on the game.
As a rookie, Smart inspired the Boston Celtics and lifted them to new heights. That’s an incredibly unique ability, one that could one day be the definition of a long and successful career.
As Stevens put it late Monday night, “He’s got to always remember that that’s his No. 1 quality.”