From an individual standpoint, Marcus Smart’s return to the Boston Celtics lineup for Thursday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets was a great success.
After missing 18 games with a calf strain and limited by a team-imposed 20-minute time restriction, the seven-year veteran scored 19 points on 4-for-6 shooting (three from behind the arc) and flashed his signature toughness and intensity on both ends of the floor.
“Felt good to be back out there with those guys, obviously first game back a little jittery,” admitted Smart to reporters after the game. “But it’s like riding a bike, I come back and just do what I do—try and help my team win games.”
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Smart’s strong performance, however, was not enough to overcome the firepower of a Nets team that looked every bit the Finals favorite, even as 11-time All-Star Kevin Durant missed his tenth straight game.
Former Celtic Kyrie Irving was impressive, to say the least, pumping in 40 points on 23 shots for the Nets, including several big buckets down the stretch. But perhaps the biggest plus for Brooklyn was sixth-man Landry Shamet, who scored 18 on six triples and helped disrupt the double-teams Boston threw at Irving and Harden in the fourth quarter.
The 121-109 loss ended the Celtics’ four-game winning streak and revived questions about end-of-game execution, which, along with lapses in effort, has dogged Boston much of the season.
All About the Execution
Though Smart was naturally disappointed by the final score and acknowledged that the team’s execution needs improvement, he was nonetheless pleased by the overall effort.
“Nobody plays the game of basketball or any game or any profession at the end to lose,” said Smart. “We came out and we played, we ran things right, we got chances after chances, we just gotta execute them better. That’s all you can ask from a player—our effort was there and I can live with a loss when our effort is there. I can’t live with a loss when there’s no effort, when there’s no chance for us to win.”
Even with their good effort, Smart recognized that against a team with Brooklyn’s talent, the margin for error is extremely low.
“We were slow on our rotations, just a half a second,” said Smart, twice a first-team All-Defensive selection. “You got Joe Harris and Landry Shamet over there, you know great shooters. And if you’re a second late they’re going to make you pay. Brooklyn did a really good job when we went to double [Harden and Irving] of finding their open man and knocking those shots down. We just gotta continue to work on it and get our rotations right just a little bit quicker. We gotta be a step quicker than we were tonight.”
Boston head coach Brad Stevens was similarly-minded when it came to the pitfalls of trying to be aggressive against the Nets.
“Got to do your best to keep them off balance,” Stevens told reporters. “But that’s your margin against those guys—it’s super low.”
Minutes Restriction ‘Sucks’
For the time being, Smart is on a minutes restriction as he gets back into game shape and the team tries to minimize the chance of a calf setback. The 20-minute pitch count is not something anybody relishes, but Smart is clear-eyed enough to see its purpose.
“I think everybody from Brad to me to the training staff we all understand it and we accept it,” Smart said. “Obviously having me out there and being out there with my team is definitely something we want and need, but we gotta be smart about it [..] I don’t think I’ll be on a minutes restriction for long, but as of right now we gonna take it and keep going with it.”
Stevens, on the other hand, was less cheery about the restriction. Though he liked what he saw when Smart was on the floor.
“The five-minute stint sucks,” said Stevens. “It is what it is. There’s only so many ways to manage that, to have any rhythm at all if you want him to be able to end the game and use his versatility defensively. And I know he’ll be excited when that 20-minute deal is over. But I thought he looked good, I thought he did a lot of good things.”