A healthy Smart in Game 2 makes the Celtics whole on offense and defense

·4 min read
Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

As Marcus Smart’s stepback three-pointer dropped through the net, the Boston Celtics guard hopped onto the Miami Heat’s logo and unleashed a roar. His Kelly Green-tinted locks wobbled back and forth with all the kinetic energy his presence promised to insert into the Eastern Conference finals.

“There’s a different type of energy and feel when I’m out there,” Smart said.

There can be little doubt that Smart’s return after missing Game 1 with a foot sprain has changed this series. His playmaking, defense and competitive zeal helped the Celtics bounce back from Miami’s decisive Game 1 win.

The Celtics had built a 30-point lead with 9:55 still left in the game. Not that it was needed, but Smart’s shot was an effective dagger to crush any dwindling hope the Heat had of coming back in Thursday night’s 127-102 loss. After splitting the first two games at home, now the pressure shifts to the Heat to win a game on the road as the series turns to Boston on Saturday

To do that, they will have to respond in the same way Smart’s Celtics have, but they will also have to match his productivity. Smart’s 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds supported Jayson Tatum, Boston’s star who finished with 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting.

Unlike Tatum, Jimmy Butler had little help on offense. His 29 points more than doubled any Heat teammate’s output. The Heat shot 44.2 percent overall and 29.4 percent from three-point range. It’s 14 turnovers led to 20 Celtics points.

Smart helped force several of those turnovers. After Butler spent Game 1 squatting in Boston’s passing lanes, Smart had three steals in Game 2 and was key in stifling Miami’s offense that thrived by picking on Boston’s weaker defenders earlier in the week. It seemed as if every time Butler or Tyler Herro came off a screen, Smart was there to muck things up or was calling out switches to his teammates.

“As always, he sets the tone,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Defensive Player of the Year for a reason. Ability to switch and switch on to bigger bodies and just another good defender to throw at Butler, [Bam] Adebayo, some of those guys and not have to worry about them trying to pick on certain matchups.”

Smart also ran a more effective offense. His 12 assists came with just one turnover as Boston’s offense hummed to the tune of 51.2 percent shooting, including 50 percent from distance. The transition opportunities that were so instrumental in Miami’s Game 1 win evaporated. After scoring 19 points off turnovers Tuesday, the Heat had just nine on Thursday.

“He’s key to what they do over there on both sides of the floor,” Butler said of Smart. “You have to respect him and what he does.”

In addition to Smart, the Celtics also welcomed the return of Al Horford from health and safety protocols. Horford’s numbers were modest — 10 points, three rebounds and three assists — but his inclusion with Smart made the Celtics whole again.

Meanwhile, the Heat is finally beginning to feel the absence of their starting point guard: Kyle Lowry, who has played just two of Miami’s last 10 games as he deals with a hamstring injury. Though Gabe Vincent was quite good (14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) in his eighth start of the postseason, this series requires all the Heat has.

Like Smart, Lowry’s expertise lies in the margins of the game. His hit-ahead passes, tidy table-setting and defensive awareness will be needed if the Heat is to advance past the Celtics and to the NBA Finals. It’s unclear when Lowry will enter this series and, as of Thursday, head coach Erik Spoelstra did not have an update.

But after dropping a home game in this best-of-7 series, the Heat doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for Lowry. Whoever is available Saturday will need to respond to Smart and the rest of the Celtics with the requisite level of energy.

“We just got to come out and then play harder from the jump and be ready,” Butler said. “Because they will be throwing some haymakers.”