Marcus Smart cooks up another batch of winning plays

BOSTON -- The post-up opportunity began roughly 23 feet from the basket, but that did little to discourage Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart. The Washington Wizards had crawled within two possessions with under two minutes to play in Monday's game at TD Garden, and Smart was hell-bent on stopping the bleeding.

So despite being about as far away from the basket as one can be when one starts trying to back down an opponent, and despite giving up four inches to Wizards forward Bojan Bogdanovic, Smart's teammates cleared room for him to operate. It took two aggressive shoulder bumps to maneuver inside the paint and Smart absorbed some additional contact before floating the ball toward the basket and Bogdanovic, stumbling backward, looked up to find the ball falling at him from the cylinder.

At the other end of the floor, the ball swung to Bogdanovic beyond the 3-point arc and Smart rushed out to contest. Bogdanovic pump-faked then put the ball on the floor and slipped through Smart and Al Horford to get into the paint. But as he left the ground to go up with a layup, Smart reached out and ripped the ball from his hands.

The play improbably went into the official scoring as a block and rebound for Smart, who was fouled as he turned to head the other way. It was, essentially, a mugging. Smart made both free throws to push Boston's lead back to double digits. And, in the span of 14 seconds, Smart had ensured the Celtics emerged with a key victory in the race for prime playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.

"You saw he went on a little run there. He just took the ball away and that was the game from that point on," said Celtics forward Jae Crowder.

"Winning plays. A guy like [Smart] is hard to keep off the court because he makes those winning plays -- a dive on the floor, getting a steal, rebounds. He makes those types of plays and that’s why we need him on the court."

The sequence was maybe even more noteworthy because of the way Smart's night ended the last time the Celtics and Wizards crossed paths. That night, as the Wizards pulled away in the fourth quarter of the now-famous funeral game, Smart tried to check himself back into the game and was booted from the Boston bench after a flare-up with assistant coaches.

"Everybody on this team knows I hate losing and how much I hate losing," Smart told reporters after that loss in Washington.

On Monday night, Smart single-handedly ensured the Celtics would not fumble away a win. And it was the quintessential Smart night as he finished 3-of-9 shooting and minus-10 in plus/minus and yet he was on the floor in a key spot making monster plays.

"The energy that Marcus Smart brought into the game was big for our team," said Avery Bradley.

Throughout the season, we've tried to document in this space all the little things that make Smart such an indispensable part of this Celtics team. There's all the charges he draws and the way he fills up the league's hustle stats compendium. Even as he's struggled with his overall shooting efficiency, Smart has improved to an above-average free-throw shooter and the Celtics lean on his playmaking abilities to helm the second unit.

Smart's late-game bulldozing of Bogdanovic was a reminder of how this "power guard" has found an unexpected offensive sweet spot. Smart might be listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, but he plays decidedly taller on both ends of the court. Ask big men like Kristaps Porzingis and Paul Millsap, who have each had notable stints where Smart quieted them down with his in-your-pocket defense.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens seemed to experiment at times this season with posting up Smart, but has seemingly tried to get him the ball in those situations more often recently.

Smart is second to only Al Horford in total post-up plays finished for Boston this season. In scoring 94 points on 90 plays finished, Smart ranks in the 88th percentile among all NBA players, averaging 1.044 points per play out of post-ups, according to Synergy Sports data.

But narrow that pool to the 68 players with at least 65 post-ups finished this season and Smart is fifth overall in points per play, trailing only Denver's Danilo Gallinari (1.213), Toronto's DeMar DeRozan (1.157), Denver's Nikola Jokic (1.11), and San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard (1.061).

Smart might be even more dangerous as a passer out of the post, combining his skills. According to Synergy data, when Smart passes after defenses commit, the Celtics average 1.5 points per play. That's the third highest mark in the league (minimum 25 attempts) trailing only Jokic (1.629) and Leonard (1.569).

Smart had already departed the locker room by the time reporters entered after Monday's win. A lot of players might have hung around to talk about their key late-game moments.

But, yet again, Smart proved that all that matters to him is winning.