MILWAUKEE — No sleep, a late-night trip to the practice facility and an unshakable focus on Friday night.
That was the formula Celtics guard Marcus Smart followed to pull himself from his disastrous Game 5, a final-minute collapse that pushed Boston to the brink in Milwaukee. Despite scoring 21 points in Game 6, Smart was overshadowed, like everyone else outside the Jayson Tatum-Giannis Antetokounmpo duel.
But his imprint on Boston’s best and toughest win in years was unmistakable.
Smart was Smart again, limiting the Bucks players to 33% shooting when he was the primary defender, the lowest field goal percentage allowed by any Celtics regular. He dished out a team-high seven assists, including two on the four straight baskets Tatum hit in the fourth quarter to keep the hard-charging Bucks at bay. He went 8-of-16 from the floor and posted Boston’s second-highest plus-minus behind Tatum at plus-11.
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Through Smart, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics re-asserted themselves as the team they believe themselves to be; not the bumbling, tentative bunch that tripped into a 3-2 series hole Wednesday. No one exemplified that shift better than Smart.
“That final minute, those final minutes, ate me alive,” Smart said of Game 5. “My guys, teammates, coaches, were doing a good job of making sure that I stay as composed as I could and keep my mind right, cause I was really hurt after that. I felt like I let my team down.
“‘Just be you.’ That’s just all they kept telling me,” he continued. “(Celtics assistant) Damon Stoudamire pulled me to the side and just told me — cause I dropped my head a couple times in those possessions — he was just, ‘I’ve never seen you do that and I just want you to not to lose confidence in yourself because we need you.’”
Hours before Friday’s tip-off, Celtics coach Ime Udoka said he didn’t believe Smart needed a pep talk after the Game 5 loss because the loss didn’t bother him more than any of his teammates. Udoka was half-right.
“I haven’t been asleep yet,” Smart revealed post-game.
Instead, in the hours that followed Game 5, Smart says he “got his mind right” overnight at the team’s facility in Brighton. A day later, the Celtics did the same, primarily through film study and a constant reminder to avoid the sluggish offense and turnovers that undercut them late at TD Garden Wednesday.
“We didn’t want to let our mindsets come and affect Game 6,” Brown said. “We still had to come here, back to Milwaukee either way if we won, so we wanted to come out with the right mindset and not get in our own way.”
Smart put those words into action immediately Milwaukee, scoring 14 points in the first quarter and assisting another basket.
“That was to be expected. We have all the confidence in the world in Smart,” Tatum said. “We knew that he was gonna come back and be the player that we needed him to be on the road in this Game 6, and he stepped up. He was big for us tonight, especially in the beginning, making the right plays.”
The Celtics led 28-26 after the first, a lead they never relinquished, thanks largely to Tatum’s 46-point barrage of baskets.
But while Friday night in Milwaukee belonged to Tatum, redemption’s name was Marcus Smart.