Marcus Smart told reporters on Sunday that he is “hopeful” that he will play on Monday. He was recently cleared to fully participate in practice and his official status on the injury report was upgraded to questionable.
“I think I’m getting really close,” Smart said. “By tomorrow, it’s still up for grabs. Like I said, I have to see how I’m feeling tomorrow morning when I wake up. Hopefully everything feels fine. As we know, injuries can be a little tricky. Sometimes you can have setbacks but hopefully that’s not the case. And hopefully they can clear me for tomorrow.”
Where Smart will help the Celtics the most will be on the defensive end of the floor, particularly with slowing down Khris Middleton. They have had no answer for Middleton so far in this series and it has shown in his highly impressive averages of 21.3 points (50% FG, 65% 3P, 90% FT), seven rebounds, and four assists.
Boston is going to need Smart to be able to find ways to do what he does best when trying to slow down Middleton. It starts with not letting him get free from beyond the arc and includes being physical with him in playmaking situations to make him uncomfortable.
It is crucial to have someone like Smart to be tasked with slowing down Middleton because being able to stay in front of him in on-ball defense would require less help from teammates. That would allow for more attention to be placed on slowing Giannis Antetokounmpo as a unit, or to stay tighter on shooters.
Smart played a key role in finishing off the Bucks in their playoff matchup last year through his defensive impact after he made his return from being sidelined for an extended period of time. Middleton highlighted the defensive contributions that Smart provided Boston in his playoff debut after Game 5 of that series.
“To me, he brought exactly what I thought he was going to bring to the game,” Middleton said. “Energy, defensive, try to make plays, and that’s what he did. We need to do a better job of knowing where he’s at defensively, he’s going to go for steals, drawing fouls, whatnot. He’s just going to work. He’s going to make all the dirty plays. Not dirty physical, just hard working plays.”
“We just got to do a better job of matching that intensity when he comes onto the court and when he’s not on the court. I mean, he’s a great player, smart player, crafty, we just got to figure out how to contain him better next game and not let him make those winning plays.”
That performance by Smart in Game 5 set the tone for the rest of his teammates and swung the momentum of the series in Boston’s favor. He did practically every aspect of dirty work on defense imaginable while also making plays off the dribble. He ended the night with nine points, five rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in just 25 minutes of action.
A common belief in the Celtics’ locker room after they defeated the Bucks in seven games last season was that Smart was the main reason why they pulled it off. It appears that they are going to need him to put together a repeat of what he did a season ago.
“I told him this last year and I told our whole team it: I felt like he was the difference for us in the playoffs against [the Bucks] last year,” said Horford. “He does so much for our team. He has a big impact on everything that we do.”
“He’s just scrappy, you know what I’m saying? He just grinds, he just always finds a way.”
The impact that Boston will need Smart to make goes beyond just the defensive end of the floor. They need as much offensive firepower as they can get because Milwaukee has found success in their efforts to slow down Kyrie Irving. Their superstar has been contained to an efficient average of just 21.3 points per game.
Smart understands that he needs to help make the game easier for his superstar teammate. Being able to provide the Celtics with another playmaking option and catch-and-shoot threat could apply a needed level of additional pressure on the defense that could prove to be truly difference making.
“(The Bucks) are doing a really good job on Kyrie of not really letting Kyrie be comfortable with a lot other guys,” Smart said. “Really communicating. They scored a lot in transition and especially in those third and fourth quarters, really killed us. Really just being out there to control the game on both ends, to where I play make on the offensive end and my communication skills and my ability on the defensive end.”
Boston has a real need for more playmaking because they have received truly underwhelming performances from Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Terry Rozier so far in this series. That trio has combined to average a mere 25.7 points while shooting 34.2% from the field and 20.7% from beyond the arc.
It is worth noting that Smart truly struggled with his scoring production last time he faced off with the Bucks in the playoffs. He averaged only 6.7 points and shot 26.1% from the field and failed to make a single three-pointer in the series. His overall value will likely be strong regardless, but it will be important that his teammates are hitting shots off his passes.
As long as the Celtics play tremendous defense and keep enough pressure off Irving to be able to carry them offensively, they should be in a position to win. The good news for Boston is that their superstar feels that Smart’s return is “exciting” for those very reasons.
“It’s exciting. He’s a big part of our team,” Irving said. “He alleviates a lot of different pressures out there throughout the game and makes my job a lot easier. So whenever you have the possibility of him returning, it’s always a positive.”
The flow of momentum that happens throughout a playoff series is unpredictable. It is possible that Smart’s return could result in the Celtics tying up the series 2-2 with a real chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals similar to what happened last season.
On the other hand, there is a chance that the lack of offensive execution from other members of Boston’s supporting cast outweighs the boost that Smart could provide and they trail 3-1 in the series heading back to Fiserv Forum for Game 5.
Regardless of what happens, Marcus Smart gives the Celtics their best chance of knocking off the team that produced the league’s best regular season record led by the likely MVP award winner.