What changed Marcus Smart in a 127-102 Game 2 blowout between the Celtics and Heat?
For one, Defensive Player of the Year does a much better defense (surprise). Smart – who returned after missing Game 1 with a metatarsal sprain – made Switch more palatable. He forced sales. He botched a second-half heat offense on Tuesday that pierced the Celtics like a sharp knife through a tender steak. He helped keep Heat star Jimmy Butler in check.
Smart also played defense with his offense – the Celtics’ primary ball handler only made a turnover that prevented the heats from coming out in transition. He also dished out 12 assists and scored 24 points (8 for 22, 5 for 12 from 3-point range).
Smart has long yearned for an opportunity to be the Celtics’ starting point keeper, which is his preferred role on the pitch. He’s thrived in that role this season – the Celtics are just under six points per 100 possessions better with Smart on the ground, which is comfortably his career high.
“That’s why I was drafted here,” Smart said. “I was just waiting for my turn. I’m blessed to be in the situation where I have the opportunity to go out and show what I can do and I think everyone in the organization – in the world – sees what I’m doing in this position as a point guard can.”
The Celtics were undoubtedly better when Al Horford was back in the game (more on his odd situation in a minute). Horford makes the Celtics a large, switchable unit that can overwhelm opponents while stabbing them in the eye 3-pointers after 3-pointers.
But on Thursday, Marcus Smart’s impact on a basketball game was on full display. The Celtics still have a long way to go against a smart, well-trained opponent who knows how to win – an opponent who may eventually get their star point guard back – but Thursday was a reminder that the team did on Tuesday folded so easily was undermanned and exhausted.
With some rest and some continuity, the Celtics looked like themselves again.
2. After a slow start, the Celtics hit the Heat with a barrage of 3-pointers that sparked a 21-point turn in the first quarter. The Heat walked out to a 10-point lead, but the Celtics reversed that, grabbing an 11-point lead after a quarter by going 9-for-11 behind the arc during that period. They finished the game with a sizzling 20-for-40 from 3-point range.
Expect the Heat to find ways to better cover the Celtics from deep, but if they don’t, this streak won’t be long.
3. Another key adjustment: The Celtics stopped playing so deep in drop pick and roll coverage against Tyler Herro, who is way too good at pull-up jumpers and floaters to let bigs go too far to let sag. Even Robert Williams can’t steal the necessary ground from under Herro’s feet in these looks. After several easy buckets from Herro early in the game, the Celtics played significantly higher and were much better in the second half.
“We didn’t want them so far behind,” Udoka stated before the game, which probably also applied in the first quarter.
Herro finished the race with 11 points in 5-for-11 shooting.
4. Not enough is made of Jaylen Brown’s performance, but he did hit several big shots. In the first quarter, he started the Celtics’ goal with a three, then crossed Max Strus into a smooth jumper that latched a run through the Heat that had taken the lead to 10. He then scored two more threes before the quarter ended, the second of which went very deep and took the Celtics’ lead to 11. That stretch was critical – Jayson Tatum sat much of the first quarter after committing his second foul.
When he returned, the Celtics extended a double-digit lead.
“JB can do anything,” Tatum said. “So when he has the ball, great things tend to happen. He was just very decisive, getting to his spots and just making the right play, which obviously got a lot of attention out there.”
5. After the game, Horford said he felt “a little off”, which led to his test.
“On Tuesday we received the news and were then tested again and again and were able to be acquitted,” he said. “Definitely a lot of emotion and through all of that I was just trying to stay locked in and do my part as best I could. I’m glad I got to be out there with the guys tonight.”
That seems like the best public explanation we’re going to get for Horford’s brief absence, and you could be excused for still feeling a little unclear about what just happened. Steve Bulpett reported for Heavy.com that Horford was thought to be a close contact after speaking to someone who later tested positive after a game, but we don’t know if Horford tested positive (it seems certain to be) and if so, why he suddenly tested negative the required number of times on Thursday.
The Celtics have stuck to their policy of not speaking about players entering health and safety protocols.
“As always, we don’t go into details with our boys,” said Udoka. “But he passed the number of tests he took and was always fine.”
6. Congratulations to Derrick White and his wife who welcomed their son on Thursday. Hendrix James White became the second baby Hendrix on the Celtics team (Rob Williams’ son is also named Hendrix).
White was spotted flying back to Boston before Game 2.
7. Thursday’s loss was Miami’s first home loss of the postseason. The Celtics stole home field advantage from the top-seeded Heat and now have a chance to take a 2-1 lead in Boston on Saturday.
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