It took Marcus Smart all of three minutes to put his fingerprints on Wednesday’s win over the Pistons, his first game since suffering an ankle sprain almost four weeks ago.
Here’s how you could tell: two assists, two steals and a certain pep in the Celtics’ step as they started to cruise to a 127-109 blowout before the All-Star break.
“I think we missed (Smart) a lot,” interim coach Joe Mazzulla said post-game. “We missed his joy.”
Smart’s joy proved infectious, as he finished with nine points, seven boards, six assists and a half-dozen steals. Three other Celtics, including Jayson Tatum, dished out at least six assists. Smart found Tatum on his third helper, a sublime pocket pass he threaded between two defenders after Tatum had slipped a screen on a middle pick-and-roll and took off for the hoop.
Tatum caught the ball, flushed it, and Smart turned back up court flashing a familiar grin with 8:40 still left in the first quarter.
“It just felt like I hadn’t missed a beat,” Smart said.
Defensively, Smart walked into a couple steals early, then picked a few Piston pockets in the second half. He also converted a third-quarter steal into a one-man transition score as Detroit threatened to close the gap in a game Boston never trailed. Smart’s defensive effort helped the Celtics minimize the Pistons’ small edges in points off fast breaks and turnovers, while his teammates bombed away from 3-point range to bury their visitors.
“Defensively, I think it was clear,” Malcolm Brogdon said of Smart’s impact. “I think he made some tremendous defensive plays that really got us going and helped turn the game around when they were getting momentum, and we pushed the lead when he was in.”
“It was great,” Blake Griffin added. “Defensively, he just does things that nobody else can really do. I mean he and (Derrick) White could do things that constantly amaze you on the defensive end. Offensively, too, but defensively they are special.”
Offensively, Smart restored a certain connective tissue that had weakened in his absence. While White provided a scoring boost in his place (averaging more than 20 points per game), the Celtics ranked 18th in assist-to-turnover ratio over the three-plus weeks Smart was missing. That marked a steep drop-off from their No. 1 ranking from the start of the season through Jan. 21, when Smart twisted his ankle against Toronto.
As he rehabbed and watched the team go 6-5 without him, Smart identified the culprit behind their sagging offense.
“We have so much talent that sometimes we allow that to pick up some of the slack that we have, where things get stale and … we shrink the floor on ourselves and make it a lot harder on ourselves,” he said. “Just really finding ways to make sure to keep the offense spaced and get great shots at all times.”
Spacing was hardly an issue against the punchless Pistons, who watched the Celtics fire almost half their 92 shots from 3-point range and hit 46.7% of them. Mazzulla pointed to pace as another reason why Boston’s offense remained in high gear. As the Celtics collected defensive rebound after defensive rebound, there was a certain spirit about them as they pushed the ball up-court again and again, a zeal, if you will.
Because more often than not, there was, with the ball in his hands, Marcus Smart.
“While he was out, Derrick (White) and Malcolm (Brogdon) made a recommitment to the first eight seconds of the shot clock, and tonight Smart joined in on that,” Mazzulla said. “And he does a great job finding that cross-match early and finding that advantage early, but it starts with his joy and energy there.”
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