Marcus Smart crunch-time struggles a microcosm of what ails Celtics

Tomase: Smart’s crunch-time struggles a microcosm of what ails C’s originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It’s all about the inflection. Read the following sentence twice, first in excited Scal voice.


And now in exasperated why-is-this-still-happening voice.

“Marcus Smart doing Marcus Smart . . . things?!”

Watching the Celtics guard late in games, sometimes it feels like his goal is to elicit the former line reading with no regard whatsoever for the possibility of the second. Case in point: His strip, dive, and tackle of Trae Young with 15 seconds left in Tuesday’s infuriating choke vs. the Hawks. Would’ve been a hell of a play in the backfield for Rodney Harrison. In the backcourt, not so much.

Celtics-Hawks takeaways: Trae’s late dagger stuns C’s to force Game 6

It was all part of a teamwide tour de farce performance over the final three excruciating minutes that once again called into question head coach Joe Mazzulla‘s blind devotion to Smart in his closing lineup when steadier options like Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White had picked apart the Hawks all night.

The play by play is damning. Consider Smart’s contributions to the collapse that saw the Celtics blow a 13-point lead in the final six minutes en route to a 119-117 loss that sends the series back to Atlanta instead of the Celtics onto the second round:

* Smart checked in for White with 3:26 remaining and the Celtics up six. On his first offensive possession, he lobbed a lazy pass to Jayson Tatum that Young intercepted before drilling the game-tying 3-pointer.

* After Robert Williams restored the lead, Smart set a needlessly aggressive screen and was flagged for an offensive foul, leading to one of the pivotal sequences of the game, Al Horford‘s foul on Young drawing a technical on Tatum. And suddenly the Celtics trailed by one.

* A Williams dunk left the Celtics needing one stop to put the game away with 25 seconds left, but Smart hounded Young 50 feet from the basket in an attempt to make the aforementioned highlight hustle play. As he dove for the loose ball, he took out Young’s legs for the easy foul call that put an 89 percent free throw shooter on the line. Swish, swish.

Smart didn’t factor in the game-deciding play, Young’s logo 3-pointer over Jaylen Brown. He started to blitz Young, but the gunner had already let it fly as the Garden fell into stunned silence.

And so it is that nine years and nearly 700 games into Smart’s Celtics career, we’re still not sure how much he can be trusted to make the right play in the closing minutes of a tight game. For every selfless charge he takes or expertly timed poke check he employs, it feels like there’s a wayward 3 or over-aggressive foul.

Since making a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer vs. the Knicks on opening night last year, Smart has taken 14 shots either to tie or give the Celtics the lead in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. He has missed 13 of them. In that sense, he fits right in with a Celtics roster that’s shooting just 36.3 percent (20 for 55) on such attempts this season.

It’s starting to feel like no amount of postseason experience will change who these Celtics are. They’re capable of jaw-dropping brilliance and hair-pulling exasperation, often within the same minute. And no one typifies that more than Smart.

We shouldn’t be shocked if he delivers the performance of his life in Thursday’s Game 6 as the Celtics breeze to victory. He has done it before, after all, following losses last postseason with near triple-doubles in wins vs. the Bucks and Heat. We know it’s in him. He wouldn’t have lasted this long if it wasn’t.

But that’s the problem. On any given night, your guess is as good as mine for exactly which “MARCUS SMART THINGS!(?)” we’re going to be yelling about, and that certainly complicates the pursuit of Banner 18.

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