The Boston Celtics are now officially halfway towards getting the chance to play for 18th NBA championship.
The Green Team topped the Toronto Raptors for the second time in as many games Tuesday night, snaring a commanding 2-0 series lead with a 102-99 triumph. After sweeping Philadelphia in the first round, Boston remains unbeaten in the Orlando bubble during the 2020 playoffs and needs just six more wins to advance to the Finals.
Jayson Tatum was magnificent, going a perfect 14-for-14 from the line and canning four triples en route to a game-high 34 points to go along with eight rebounds and six assists. Along with Tatum, Jaylen Brown played stout defense on Raptors’ all-star Pascal Siakam, chipping in 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocks.
Kemba Walker shook off a rough shooting night to cash in on some clutch buckets down the stretch, including a monumental step-back jumper against a good defender in Serge Ibaka. He finished with 19 points.
The Celtics’ aforementioned trio did their job once again — but it was glue guy Marcus Smart who single-handedly sparked the game’s decisive run.
With his team trailing by eight (78-70) entering the fourth quarter, Smart proceeded to knock down five straight 3-balls, the last of which resulted in an and-1 opportunity. He cashed in on the freebie to give the Celtics an 86-85 lead and cap off a 16-points-in-4-minutes onslaught. The individual shooting spree not only dug Boston out of a late hole, but helped change the game’s flow and momentum as the clock wound down.
I’m not going to lie; every time Smart launches an ill-advised or contested triple, I still cringe. But I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have to.
There was a time in Smart’s career where he was considered a bad outside shooter. Not just a bad outside shooter for a guard, just bad in general.
That’s no longer the case.
Smart has shown time and time again — on the biggest of stages, mind you — that he’s capable of knocking down shots.
Is he in the same category as Steph Curry or Kyle Korver? No. But it’s clear that he’s put a lot of time and effort into his shooting mechanics and release, and is starting to yield results.
Confidence has never been Smart’s problem; he’ll willingly and fearlessly fire shot after shot, regardless of his success rate. Right now, he just happens to be making more of them.
Since entering the bubble, Smart has gone 22-for-62 (35 percent) from deep. OK, so not an otherworldly effort, but certainly serviceable and better than his career percentage of just over 31 percent.
In the last two games alone, Smart has gone 5-9 and 6-11 from long range. Those are game-changing numbers; and for a guy that tends to make his mark on the defensive end — something he did time and time again on Tuesday — that’s huge.
I’m not going to sit here and say that Smart is the best shooter on the Celtics, or that he should throw his name in the ring for next year’s 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend. But with Walker struggling for much of Tuesday’s tilt and Gordon Hayward still unavailable due to an ankle injury, Smart’s ability to can big-time shots was exactly what the Celtics needed.
This second round series against Toronto is going to be a grind. Forget the fact that Boston is up 2-0; Toronto was down 2-0 to Milwaukee in last year’s playoffs, too. We all know how that turned out.
The Raptors are a fundamentally sound, hard-nosed, well-coached and talented. They are not going to fold easy. If Smart hadn’t exploded from beyond the arc early in Tuesday’s fourth quarter, we could very well have had a tied series.
Let it fly, Marcus. Right now you can do no wrong.
Nick Giannino can be reached at NGiannino@Salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.