CLEVELAND — What Celtics faithful have become accustomed to with Marcus Smart is the unpredictable, him responding to adversity with a momentum-changing play, taking the shot that he probably shouldn’t, and clamoring for redemption even when it appears he should surrender while he’s behind.
On Wednesday night, Smart sleepwalked through the first three quarters, as if Tuesday night’s infuriating overtime loss to Brooklyn, one in which Smart made a series of errors in the waning minutes, was foremost on his mind.
He missed 10 of his first 12 shots. He was a step slow on defense, allowing Collin Sexton to execute the same kind of scoring binge as Caris LeVert the night before, and Smart launched dispassionate shots with little belief they would fall through the net.
And then the fourth quarter arrived, with the Celtics clinging to a 4-point lead and looking susceptible to the same type of rally as the Nets mounted Tuesday. But Smart helped prevent another meltdown, sinking all three of his shots in the fourth and adding six free throws in a 112-106 bounce-back win over the equally shorthanded Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Smart finished with 18 points in 32 minutes, after waiting before the game for a phone call he never received. Smart was convinced he would be fined or suspended for his postgame tirade Tuesday directed at official John Goble following a costly foul on LeVert that led to three free throws that forced overtime.
With still no word from the NBA an hour before the game, Smart walked onto the floor and began warming up. He was in the starting lineup as if it were a normal night. But it wasn’t. Smart was the main culprit in Tuesday’s defeat, and he refrained from speaking to the media following the past few games because of his issues with officiating.
‘We had to show heart, the growth as a team, the type of team we are, the type of team we want to be’
He wasn’t long on words Wednesday night either, but he did acknowledge his frustration and ability to rebound from Tuesday.
“We had to show heart, the growth as a team, the type of team we are, the type of team we want to be,” Smart said. “And that was coming out and winning this game.”
When asked what the last 24 hours had been like, Smart said, “Uh, it’s been all right. Frustrating. But it’s all right. Just move on.”
The Celtics entered Wednesday in another injury crisis. Jaylen Brown (hamstring), Gordon Hayward (knee), and Kemba Walker (rest) all stayed in Boston, so coach Brad Stevens put together a patchwork starting lineup that included Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams to join Jayson Tatum, who returned from a one-game illness absence.
And Stevens used reserve Semi Ojeleye, who did not play in regulation Tuesday, extensively. The result was a career-high 22 points and five 3-pointers. The final one was a side pocket shot that gave Boston a 103-97 lead with 2:15 left. Ojeleye played a season-high 30:10 and finished plus-11 to go along with six rebounds and two assists.
“It’s nights like this that just keep your faith going,” he said. “It’s just feels like relief, a weight off your shoulders [when shots go in]. You put in the work and you finally get to let it show a little bit. Now it’s time to put in more work.”
It was hardly an cinch game against one of the league’s worst teams. The Cavaliers are playing hard under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, and Sexton is playing the best basketball of his brief career. The speedy point guard attacked the rim at will as Stevens opted for single coverage until midway through the fourth quarter.
Finally, the Celtics sent double teams at Sexton, and he passed out of them. With the Celtics up 1 with less than three minutes left, they forced two turnovers and a missed Sexton 3-pointer in pushing the lead to 8. That two-minute defensive stretch won Boston the game.
‘That’s one of the more rewarding wins that I’ve been a part of coming off of last night’
“That’s one of the more rewarding wins that I’ve been a part of coming off of last night,” Stevens said. “Shorthanded. Everybody was gassed. You could see at the end of the third quarter I thought both teams were dead. But we found a way and I thought we played well late, which was good coming off last night.”
Tatum finished with a team-high 32 points a day after his 22nd birthday. He opened with three first-quarter 3-pointers and looked to be back in form. In the second half, Cleveland trapped to get the ball out of his hands, and despite a few turnovers Tatum generally made the right play. He finished with six assists, his second-most this season.
With Brown, Hayward, and Walker watching from Boston, Tatum needed another breakout scoring night. He was able to accomplish that in the flow of the offense.
“It felt good to be out there. I’m kind of tired, but it was fun to just be back playing,” he said. “We knew [the doubles] were coming. Just simply making the right play. Somebody is going to be open, just trying to find them.”
The overwhelming theme Wednesday was doing whatever possible to turn Tuesday’s loss into an aberration. Stevens met with the team before the game to stress the importance of preventing the setback from turning into a skid, and Tatum was eager to help.
“Last night was tough for everybody; it was tough for me to watch,” he said. “I’m proud of how we came back and responded. We could have made excuses because a lot of guys ain’t here, but we tried to figure it out.”