2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Whether his shot falls or not, Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart makes winning plays

Smart's relentless energy personifies a Celtics team that has overcome major injuries to come within two victories of The Finals

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

BOSTON – Early in the second quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Marcus Smart took a pass around the mid-court line on a fast break. He took two dribbles and pulled up for a jumper from the right side of the floor with his toes on the 3-point line.

It was, for many reasons, a terrible shot.

It was a long 2-pointer, off the dribble, with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, and from one of the worst shooters in the league. There were 207 players who took at least 200 shots from outside the paint this season, and Marcus Smart (31 percent) ranked 199th among the 207 in field goal percentage on those shots.

Through the Boston Celtics’ first 13 playoff games, Smart had an effective field goal percentage of 28 percent on pull-up jumpers. He likely thought he was shooting a 3 in that situation, making it — maybe — not so terrible of a shot. But he was brutal 1-for-16 on pull-up 3s before Tuesday. And no, this one — no matter how many points it would have counted for — didn’t go in either.

But Smart didn’t go to the bench because of it. Celtics coach Brad Stevens, a guy who cares about math, had been asked about Smart’s shot selection less than three hours earlier.

“Let it fly,” Stevens said. “I want guys playing free. I want them excited to make a mistake and learn from it and move on. Marcus Smart makes a ton of winning plays, and because of that, he deserves to take those opportunities, because we all believe he’s going to make them.”

Saying “we all believe” that Smart is going to make his shots is a bit of a stretch. But Stevens proved prophetic. That wasn’t the only bad shot Smart took as he went 3-for-9 on Tuesday. But he also made a ton of winning plays as the Celtics won Game 2, 107-94, to take a 2-0 series lead.

After a 21-point first quarter from LeBron James, the Cavs led by as many as 11 in the second, and by seven at halftime. But behind a big third quarter from Terry Rozier, the Celtics — who now have a league-high 18 wins after trailing by double-digits — came back. And they took the lead for good with a long, catch-and-shoot 3 from Smart with 4:34 to go in the period.

Smart’s last two buckets were much more characteristic of the hard-nosed player he is. Later in the third, he took a hand-off from Al Horford with Kyle Korver trailing the play. Smart drove into the paint, took off sideways to avoid the helping Kevin Love, and dropped in a reverse scoop shot as he fell to the ground. And midway through the fourth, after tapping out an offensive rebound, he outhustled James and Tristan Thompson for a tip-in of a Jayson Tatum miss, again falling to the ground as the shot dropped in.

But of course, as is always the case with Smart, the 11 points he scored didn’t tell nearly the whole story. There were the four steals, two of which sent Smart crashing out of bounds. And then, there was the playmaking.

Stevens has plenty of options through which to run his late-game offense. It could be Horford in the post, Tatum from the left side of the floor, or a pick-and-roll with Rozier. For most of Tuesday’s fourth quarter, the ball was in Smart’s hands, running pick and roll with Greg Monroe and Horford. The results were mostly good, and Smart finished with nine assists and zero turnovers.

As has been the case all postseason with the Celtics, they found an advantage and attacked it.

“At one time they had Love on Smart, and that’s just unique matchup for a big (to have to defend a pick-and-roll ballhandler),” Stevens said. “We tried to get out of the screens quick and tried to find a seam to the rim, either on the drive or the lob.”

I’m the youngest of four boys. My whole life I had to fight. I had to get down and do things in order to secure my spot in the household. So, coming onto the court, it’s nothing different.”

Celtics guard Marcus Smart

The shots from the outside don’t matter as much if you’re getting to the basket. And for the second straight game, the Celtics outscored the Cavs in the paint. This time the tally was 50-42, with six of Smart’s nine assists resulting in layups or dunks for his teammates.

“He has a really uncanny ability to get into the lane and either create for himself or create for others,” James said. “And he did that tonight with the nine assists, and also had some offensive rebounds and also some missed shots.”

Yes, the missed shots. It’s part of the package. You take the bad with the good. In this series, the Celtics have been both the better team and the tougher team, and Smart, still playing with a splint on his right thumb, exemplifies the latter.

“That’s me,” he said. “I’m the youngest of four boys. My whole life I had to fight. I had to get down and do things in order to secure my spot in the household. So, coming onto the court, it’s nothing different.”

“If there’s a loose ball, offensive rebound they need to have, he’s going to get it,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’ve got to be able to find someone who can match his toughness.”

It’s not clear that someone exists.

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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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