Sometimes Marcus Smart is accused of playing “hero ball.” Sometimes he is easily convicted of the charge.
The longest-tenured Celtic plays with a passion and self-confidence that can lead him to attempt things — contested low-percentage shots, geometry-mocking passes — that are outside his skill set or don’t fit with the Celtics’ needs.
It can be exasperating. His intentions are good — Smart throws his body around as if all of his parts are replaceable, and he cares about winning above all else — but his methods are too often misguided.
It’s why he’s the most polarizing Celtic of his era, and perhaps of many eras.
It’s why some among us, present company included, began wondering whether he had too much of a hold on this team and pondering scenarios in which defeat in this series might lead to an offseason roster reshuffling that included him.
And it’s why his remarkable, reassuring performance Thursday night — Oh right, that’s why Celtics fans profess love and trust in the guy — was so satisfying.
During the win-or-join-the-Bruins-on-the-golf-course Game 6 matchup with the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, Smart played hero ball, all right — in all the right ways and at all the right times.
Smart led the Celtics with 22 points, 7 assists, and a plus-18, and tied for the team lead in offensive rebounds (2) and steals (2) in a 95-86 victory. He helped save the season and set the stage for a potentially epic Game 7 of this Eastern Conference series between old rivals at TD Garden.
Smart’s statistics were excellent, but they tell only part of the tale of a redemptive performance. He set the tone early, pushing the pace, sharing the ball, making wise decisions, and knocking down open shots.
He scored the first points of the game with the first of his three 3-pointers. Sometimes an early Smart make actually can be a harbinger of forced shots to come, but not this time. He had the game and his worst instincts under control. He knew what his team needed, and he delivered it.
“He got the pace going for us from start to finish,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. “He did a great job of keeping us poised.
“When Smart can dictate the pace like that and get us into offense and get us into spacing and just play with that level of toughness, it was contagious. He’s one of our emotional leaders.”
Smart’s defensive intensity was on full throttle from the beginning, which is no surprise. At the 9:15 mark of the first quarter, he yanked the ball away from Sixers center Joel Embiid and forced him to commit a take foul.
And he took and made shots within the parameters of the offense. That … well, yes, that was something of a surprise. His second 3-pointer — after some selfless ball movement reminiscent of how this offense played at the start of the year — put the Celtics up, 13-3, and forced Sixers coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout near the midpoint of the first quarter.
That reminds me of my favorite factoid from the game: The Sixers called timeouts after Smart buckets three times. Rivers also did so after a Smart driving layup gave the Celtics a 44-28 lead in the second quarter, and again nearly three minutes into the third quarter when a spinning Smart dished to Al Horford for a layup and a 58-48 advantage.
“My teammates look to me for that; my coaching staff looks to me for that,” said Smart when asked about setting the tone on both ends of the court. “That’s one of the greatest things about me is to be able to come in and change the game with just the way I play both offensively and defensively. And we’ve got a guy like me that can do that, that helps other guys.”
His performance was not flawless — for some reason Smart and the other Celtics guards are in the habit of throwing Robert Williams passes that Gronk in his prime would struggle to catch — but it wouldn’t be fair to expect that anyway, would it?
The truth is, the Celtics would have been lost, and probably would have lost, without Smart’s stellar effort, particularly in the first half. At one point in the second quarter, his plus/minus had escalated to plus-24. At halftime, he was 6 of 8 shooting for 15 points. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford were a combined 4 of 23 for 12 points.
Let’s be honest: If the Celtics win this series, the lasting memory nationally will not be the stability provided by Smart, but Tatum’s bizarre and ultimately redemptive performance. He went 0 for 10 in the first half, had just 3 points heading into the fourth quarter, then outscored the Sixers, 16-11, by himself in the final frame. The mental toughness he demonstrated at the end of this game will be part of whatever legend he crafts for himself over the rest of his career.
But true Celtics fans, the diehards, the ones who profess love and trust for Smart on the nights he comes through and the nights he does not, will remember his performance in this game forever.
Sure, Tatum just packed Dennis Johnson’s 0-for-14 in Game 7 of the ‘78 Finals and DJ’s MVP performance in the ‘79 Finals into about two hours, and it was wild.
But Smart, more than any other Celtic, was the one who kept them navigating in the right direction until Tatum awakened. It was the best kind of hero ball, the literal kind, when a polarizing player does the right thing, over and over and over again.