NEW YORK — The Marcus Smart experience has been wildly positive this season, the brilliant plays have far outnumbered the ones out of exuberance or frustration or high-risk gambles. So he can be forgiven for leaving Kyrie Irving all alone at the 3-point line for a swish that brought the Brooklyn Nets to within 3 points with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left Monday night.
For those final 150 seconds, Smart owned the series and owned the moment. With Jayson Tatum on the bench, watching helplessly and anxiously with his hands on his head after fouling out, Smart ensured the Celtics would pull off the improbable sweep of this series with a handful of stellar plays.
By the time the Celtics prevailed, 116-112, to unexpectedly dump the one-time NBA Finals favorites out of the playoffs, Smart racing to try to catch Kevin Durant blindsided for a steal, and then allowing Irving to step into a 3-pointer was long forgotten.
It prompted a laugh from coach Ime Udoka, who had dealt with his share of Smart moments this season. But he’s the Defensive Player of the Year, because of his fearlessness, desire to take those chances and lack of a short-term memory that allows him to strive to make those brilliant defensive plays.
The most critical play is one for which Smart refused to fully take credit. With less than 25 seconds left and the Celtics up 3, Durant rebounded a Jaylen Brown miss with zero intention of giving up the ball, seeking a soft spot in the Celtics defense to release the potential tying 3-pointer.
Before Durant could even get halfway through the backcourt, Smart lunged at the dribble and the two men fell to the floor, Smart hoping to draw a jump ball. It was called a foul, but it was perhaps the most beautiful foul of Smart’s career.
Not only was Durant denied a chance for the tying 3, he was relegated to shooting two free throws with 22.1 left, meaning the Nets would have to play the foul game. Durant missed the second free throw, and then Smart raced down the floor to miss the potential clinching layup, but Al Horford raced behind for the putback.
That sequence sealed the game. Smart sank three more free throws in the final 7.1 to polish off the Celtics’ most impressive stretch of basketball since the Big Three was broken up 10 years ago. The Celtics won the four games by a total of 18 points, but they prevailed in the waning moments of each game, getting the key defensive stop, making the right pass and preventing Durant and Irving from having a chance to win any of the games with final shots.
Durant finally overcame the relentless Celtics defense, scoring 39 points on 13-for-31 shooting and he was determined to keep Brooklyn from getting swept, even if it meant taking on five defenders. Smart denied him that chance, even if it wasn’t a pre-designed foul.
He could have easily accepted all the glory and accolades for that intentional-unintentional foul, but in pure Marcus Smart style, he was angry that he was whistled. He was trying to go for the clean steal.
“If we’re being honest, it wasn’t a foul,” he said. “I picked the ball, and I dove on the ball and we both went to the ground. It’s a loose ball. Where’s the foul? But they called it and it worked out in our favor.
“He’s shooting two instead of three and I’ll take that any day, especially with him. The way he was shooting [Monday], it felt like everything he shot was going in. It was worth it, I’ll take it.”
Udoka grinned when asked about the contrast between Smart’s attempted steal of Durant and that foul with 22.1 left. He fully comprehends the adventure of coaching Smart. And he has embraced it.
“Marcus is going to be Marcus and you live with those moments because most of the time he’s going to make the right play,” Udoka said. “Takes me back to my years with Manu [Ginobili] and I see what [coach Gregg Popovich] was going through and I would say that’s Manu being Manu because he would gamble at times and more often than not he would make the right play. That’s what you have to do with instinctual guys like that, not take their aggressiveness away.”
Smart scored 10 of the Celtics’ 26 points in the final period, proving again he’s the most indispensable player on the Boston roster, a two-way maven who can cause havoc defensively — even if he sometimes makes a questionable decision — and closes games with winning plays.
The Celtics needed a lift with Tatum on the bench, and some bizarre calls in the final minutes offered the impression Boston was destined for a fifth game Wednesday at TD Garden. But Smart saved his team with Tatum standing helplessly near the Celtics bench.
“It was good for us to play without Jayson [for that stretch],” Smart said. “You never know. It may happen again. We have to be ready and understanding what to do without him is crucial for us.”
Smart’s lack of short-term memory and his brashness on the floor is one of the main reasons why the Celtics swept this series and are 37-10 in their past 47 games. And those critical plays, the defensive stops, key rebounds, 50-50 balls or even an unintentional-intentional foul are why the Celtics advanced and that miscue leading to Irving’s 3-pointer becomes nothing more than Marcus being Marcus.
“You can’t be [fazed at mistakes], especially at this time of the year, you can’t be,” he said. “One slip up, one ‘ugh’ [after an error], and then bam, he’ll make us pay. I took a chance, it failed, move on to the next play, don’t let it happen again and that’s the mentality you got to have. You have to have a short-memory loss, in this game, in this sport, this profession, at this level, especially at this time of the year.”