The main story of the Celtics first round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets will begin with Jayson Tatum out dueling Kevin Durant in the battle of two All-Stars.
However, there was another key battle that went Boston’s way in Game 4 that won’t get nearly as much fanfare but was just as important. With the Nets season on the line, Marcus Smart outplayed Kyrie Irving.
Smart delivered his first double-double of the series with 20 points and 11 assists and was everywhere in the closing three minutes of Boston’s win as the team held off a Nets rally after Tatum fouled out. While Irving (20 points, 5 assists in 45 minutes) looked far from a max contract player in this matchup, Smart did the little things to ensure the Celtics wrapped up this series as efficiently as possible.
Smart made aggressive choices later in the game but the totality of those decisions paid off. They began with setting up Jaylen Brown for a driving layup with the 1:02 mark to give Boston a three-point lead.
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From there, the veteran point guard made what could have been a potential miscue with 22 seconds on the clock and the visitors still nursing a three-point lead. He went for the steal against Durant in the backcourt and then chased after the loose ball after the initial strip. He made contact with Durant on the play, fouling him about 70 feet from he basket.
However, a big picture looks at the situation made the choice far more defensible. Smart was gambling on a steal to secure the win and even after missing out on it, he took away the opportunity for the Nets to tie the game with a 3 in a one-possession game.
It was back in November when Smart made a foolish foul in Dallas that led to a Luka Doncic game-winner. This time around, Smart’s savvy and calculated gamble netted a Boston result as Durant missed a free throw.
“If we’re being honest, it wasn’t a foul,” Smart said. “Tipped the ball, and I fell, dove to the ground, loose ball, it wasn’t a foul, but they called it, and it worked out in our favor. Three-point game, he’s going to the line to shoot two instead of three. I’ll take that any day, especially with him, the way he was shooting tonight, felt like everything he shot was going in. So to send him to the line and make two instead of three, now they have to play the foul game, and we’re going to knock down free throws. So it was worth it. I’ll take it. If it were a tie game, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I tried to take that risk, and then with JT being out, I said it’s the other guys, it’s the team. One guy goes down, one guy fouls out, the next guy steps up, and that’s what we did. We all collectively had a part in that. So we’re happy, we’re excited. It was good for us to play without Jayson, because you never know.”
Smart was once again front and center after Duran’t free throw miss. He beat the Nets in transition off the dead ball (how bad is the Nets defense to be beat in this instance?) and Jaylen Brown found him for a long pass. The easy call would have been to hold the ball and burn some clock but Smart once again was going for the kill. He went straight at Blake Griffin, missing a layup but the offensive rebound was cleaned up by Al Horford for a putback to give the Celtics a four-point lead. It was a chaotic sequence but one that sealed the game for Boston.
“Marcus will be Marcus,” Ime Udoka said after the win. “You live with those moments because most of the time he’s going to make the right play, defensively and offensively. It takes me back to all those years of Manu and kind of seeing what Pop was going through. He always said, ‘Manu being Manu’ because you know he’s going to gamble at times and burn you but more often than not, he’ll make the right play.”
Smart waited a long time to be given the keys to the car at point guard for Boston and there were a lot of growing pains along the way this year. However, his controlled aggression from him stood out against an uninspired Irving who went through this contest on cruise control. That’s as big of a reason as any why the Celtics are now East favorites and the Nets are going home.