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Marcus Smart steps up against Hawks when Celtics need it most

Marcus Smart stepped up for the Boston Celtics in their Game 4 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

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BOSTON — Marcus Smart registered the fourth-worst field goal percentage in the NBA this season, converting a dismal 34.8% of his attempts. His success rate dipped to 25.3% from three-point land, the worst of any player who attempted more than 200 triples on the year. He’s one of the league’s most talented floppers, earning a $5,000 fine for an Oscar-worthy flail in Game 3. On Sunday though, he was the heart of the Celtics’ 104–95 comeback.

“I think I’ve given each coach I’ve played for a heart attack at least once,” Smart said.

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The Celtics guard came on late in an overtime victory against Atlanta in Game 4. He delivered 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals during the fourth quarter, all while slowing the Hawks’ Paul Millsap who finished with a game-high 45 points.

Millsap scored 36 through three quarters, well more than eclipsing his scoring efforts from Games 1–3 combined. Boston had no answer for Millsap’s inside-out combination. He bullied Evan Turner and Jae Crowder in the post and burst past Jonas Jerebko on the wing. He drained three of his six three-point attempts, one even bouncing three times off the rim and once off the backboard before falling gracefully through the net.

With around eight minutes remaining in regulation, head coach Brad Stevens conjured a last-ditch effort to slow Atlanta’s perennial All-Star. Boston depended on the 6 ' 4", 200-pound Smart to slow Millsap’s 6' 8", 246-pound bag of tricks. “At one point, you just start throwing darts at the dartboard,” Stevens said.

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Millsap naturally took Smart to the post. Smart frequently allowed Millsap to easily catch with his back to the basket, but only after forcing him several feet away from his initial post-up effort. “He guarded me at the right time,” Millsap said.

Smart used his quick feet to keep Millsap in front of him to absorb contact from Millsap’s powering shoulder and his 6' 9" wingspan to contest Millsap’s ultimate fading jumpers. Millsap scored just four points in the game’s final eight minutes. “I’m trying to push the catch out first and make his moves and everything real difficult,” Smart said. “Just try to get as low as I can and work him.” 

Still, Atlanta had the ball and a chance to win with 15 seconds left, but floundered during its final possession. Jeff Teague, who two fourth-quarter threes, dribbled the clock to three seconds before losing the ball while shifting his hesitation dribble into a jumper. “You want to exhaust the clock in that situation,” Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer explained. “You want to take the last shot. Jeff ended up mishandling it.”

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While the Hawks couldn’t take advantage of their chance to win, Smart did everything he could to even the series at two. The guard simultaneously scored 11 straight points for the Celtics during one stretch in the middle of the fourth, turning an 80–74 deficit into an 85–84 lead. He somehow translated a wild drive into an emphatic and-1 finish. Smart faked Kyle Korver out of his shoes in the left corner, and burst down the baseline for a tomahawk flush. He then promptly drained two triples, only to trot back down court and strip Millsap.  “He’s going to be special,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said.

While Smart’s grittiness set the tone for Boston’s comeback, Thomas found his magic from Friday night down the stretch of the fourth and into overtime. Trailing by two with 15 seconds left, Thomas curled off Smart’s high ball screen and danced into the paint. He flew towards the rim, only to duck under the charging Al Horford and Kent Bazemore and flip in the game-tying layup unscathed.

The Celtics started the extra period on a rampage, outscoring Atlanta 12–3 in those five minutes. Thomas’s three-pointer off an Evan Turner assist with 30 seconds left was the final nail in the Hawks’ coffin.

In a playoffs otherwise devoid of first-round drama, the Celtics and Hawks are knotted at two. It was Smart, of all players, who made that happen for Boston.

Turner said it best, “I thought [Sunday] he was the best player on the court.”