ATLANTA — In the final moments of the third quarter of Game 4 Sunday night, Celtics guard Marcus Smart waved off a screen from Jaylen Brown, signaling his plans to take on Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanović one-on-one.
Atlanta had just cut Boston’s lead to 3, and with the clock ticking below 10 seconds, Smart blew by his defender and rose up for a rare one-handed jam, just his fifth dunk of the season. As Bogdanović stood helplessly with his hands outstretched, Smart let out a yell and flexed.
The sequence confirmed what many coaches and players have said: Smart is the heartbeat of this team.
“I leave everything on the floor every night, like it’s my last game,” he said after the Celtics’ 129-121 victory gave them a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
Sunday’s Game 4 followed a familiar story: Smart, listed as questionable after landing hard on his tailbone in Game 3, was unsure whether he would be available. But he battled through the injury and made a number of signature plays in his 29 minutes on the floor.
When the Hawks went on a 9-0 run in the second quarter to pull within 4, Smart had a hand in Boston’s next five field goals, either scoring or assisting. Over the span of those 2½ minutes, the Celtics pushed their lead back to 12.
The Hawks felt Smart’s presence throughout the game. He finished with 19 points, including three 3-pointers, and four assists. He drew a ticky-tack offensive foul, frustrating Hawks point guard Trae Young. He almost had a 4-point play, but Atlanta coach Quin Snyder successfully challenged the call on center Clint Capela.
“He’s the trigger for our offense, as far as our pace and space and recognizing cross-matches, so he did a great job of operating in space,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. “When he plays with that level of control and pace, it really helps our offense. I thought he did a good job of that.”
As it typically does, Smart’s impact Sunday extended beyond the box score. During Atlanta’s second-quarter surge, he and Brown engaged in a heated yet productive conversation about their defensive performance.
“It wasn’t no malice,” Brown said. “It was all out of competing, winning, and love. I’m seeing something; he’s seeing something. He’s explaining it to me; I’m explaining it to him. We come to an understanding and move on to the next play.
“That’s what it’s about. That’s growth in our relationship. Being able to have that communication is key.”
Added Smart, “He felt like I missed the coverage or something of that sort, so we just talked it out. I asked what he was seeing, he told me, and vice versa. He asked what he could do. That’s the growth and maturity we both have had.”
Smart said his back locked up a few times during the game, necessitating a heating pad and stretching to alleviate the tightness. He also appeared to tweak his ankle after landing awkwardly in the third quarter, but said he is fine.
As for why he always ends up dealing with various ailments?
“It’s part of my game,” he said with a smile. “And it just happens. I’m just thankful that it’s nothing too serious and I could bounce back.”
The Celtics sealed their victory in Game 4 thanks to the critical shot-making of Brown and Jayson Tatum in the fourth quarter. The duo combined for 28 of Boston’s 37 points in the final 12 minutes to hold off the pesky Hawks, who have come alive after an underwhelming showing in Games 1 and 2.
But Smart’s role in keeping his team afloat en route to victory cannot be overstated. In four games this series, Smart is averaging 17 points on 49.1 percent shooting, including 40 percent from three, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.3 steals.
“I like it when Smart’s aggressive,” Brown said. “I like it when he’s not thinking too much and he’s just playing the game. That’s what we need. That’s what we need going forward down the line. Smart has to keep it up.”