In a Game 1 win against the 76ers in the previous round, Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain — an injury that will keep him out a minimum of four weeks. Many expect Hayward to be back around the start of the NBA Finals at earliest, meaning someone needed to step up and fill his 17.5 points-per-game.
Smart stepped in.
He not only filled Hayward’s vacated starting spot, but replaced nearly every bit of the production lost. Hayward had regular season averages of 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists; Smart is averaging 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists during the Celtics’ second round series against the Raptors.
Smart is doing all that while being the primary defender on Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who is averaging 21.5 points-per-game for the series, including 33 in Game 6.
His triple-double in Game 6 was the first Celtics playoffs triple-double since Rajon Rondo did it in a Game 2 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
Perhaps the most surprising element to this — at least for the narrative followers — is Smart has become a weapon from the 3-point line, knocking down 43-percent of his 3s on 8.5 attempts per-game for the series.
After a Raptors loss in Game 2 that saw Smart hit five 3s in the fourth quarter, Lowry said the game was “one of those ones where you can’t believe the way it went down” and then laughed while saying “I mean, Marcus Smart made five-straight 3s.” Smart converted 34.7 percent beyond the arc during the season, while Lowry hit on 35.2 percent of his.
The stigma of Smart being a poor shooter should be long gone by now, but it isn’t. In some cases, it hurt the Raptors in this series while leaving Smart relatively open from three. Only after Smart hit on his first two of five-straight 3s did the Raptors start to guard him closely.
Smart will be need to be an integral part of the Celtics offense in Game 7 if Boston wants to make its third Eastern Conference Finals appearance in four years. He’s been the Celtics MVP of this series to this point, as Boston’s three dominant offensive threats — Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — have each faded in certain games — Game 6 for Walker, Game 4 for Brown and Game 3 for Tatum.
Smart will need to make sure it’s not his turn for a disappearing act in Game 7. His offensive and defensive impact have brought the Celtics to this point, and they need his ability now more than ever to move on.
With reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo back home in Milwaukee, the winner of this series could be primed to advance to the NBA Finals as the No. 5-seeded Heat wait in the Conference Finals.
This is arguably Boston’s most important game since Game 6 and 7 of 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. There is no longer a seemingly unbeatable challenge waiting in the Finals. Title windows never last long and this could be the Celtics only opportunity at a championship with this core. For Smart — Game 7 could help define his career.
How to watch
What: Boston vs. Toronto, Game 7
When: 8 p.m. Friday