BOSTON — The buzz about Marcus Smart’s impending return had grown so loud inside TD Garden that few even noticed Brad Stevens had inserted Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup.
For the first eight minutes of Game 5, Smart stood at the corner of the parquet, like a serial killer stalking his next victim, watching the Bucks match his Celtics, waiting to be unleashed after six weeks on the mend with a torn tendon in his right thumb, letting the suspense build before him.
When Stevens signaled for his raging reserve to check in, applause swelled while he watched from the scorer’s table as Milwaukee knotted the score at 13. The crowd erupted when Smart’s name was announced on the loudspeaker with 4:08 left in the first quarter. And cheers turned maniacal when he dove for a steal against Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova 33 seconds later.
“I said it earlier in the year that he was kind of like the soul of our team,” said Al Horford. “Everything he brings — his toughness, unselfishness, hard-nose play. And we fed off his energy. I felt like the crowd fed off of it, we fed off of it, and it’s just good to have him back.”
This was quintessential Smart, whose plus/minus belies his inability to shoot, whose box scores confound advanced statisticians. He is not Kyrie Irving, the quintessential star, or Terry Rozier, the talented understudy in waiting. He’s Leatherface, the madman from the slaughterhouse, wearing the skin of his victims in a chainsaw massacre. And his buzzsaw — a start-to-finish thrill ride that turned the Garden crowd into his frenzied family of cannibals — left the Bucks for dead.
“You can look at stat sheets all you want,” said Stevens. “With Marcus, it just doesn’t tell the story. It’s his energy, it’s his emotion, it’s little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays.”
The steal drew blood. Smart’s slashing and-one basket a minute later opened the wound. And his pass breakup of a lob to Giannis Antetokounmpo put the Bucks on a meat hook, left only to watch as Smart’s Celtics fed them through a grinder on a 10-2 run to close the opening quarter.
The Bucks didn’t go easy. They tried to escape Boston with their bowels still intact, trimming the lead to two possessions a handful of times, but every time Milwaukee got close to safety, Smart ripped the cord on his chainsaw, revved the engine and sliced their feet from underneath them.
“He makes you want to get out there and go to war and battle,” said Rozier.
Smart had motive, too. This was the same team that called him “trash” earlier in the year, and he was playing for his mother, suffering from bone cancer back home in Texas, wanting nothing more than to see her son go to battle once more in the playoffs. On his shoes, Smart inscribed, “YOU FIGHT, I FIGHT. F-CANCER,” and he went to war, his mother watching from home.
“My mom is the soul and heart of my family,” he said, reflecting that soul back onto the Celtics.
There was the strip-block of Khris Middleton at the start of the second quarter, one that sent a message to Milwaukee’s X-factor that he would need 21 shots to get his 23 points this time.
“He’s just going to work,” Middleton said of Smart. “He’s going to make a lot of dirty plays — not dirty physically, but hardworking plays. We just got to do a better job of matching that intensity.”
When the offense floundered in the first half’s final minutes and the Bucks cut a 16-point lead to single digits, Smart barreled to the basket in the waning seconds, drew a foul and nudged the C’s margin back to 11. And when that edge dwindled to six late in the third quarter, Stevens subbed in Smart, who promptly posted Middleton, drew the Milwaukee forward’s fourth foul and knocked down two more freebies to help push the advantage back to 11 entering the final frame.
A few minutes into the fourth, the Bucks got within two possessions for the first time since Smart drew blood. Stevens called timeout, and his recast weapon sliced through traffic to a killer layup.
And when Milwaukee trimmed the lead to five in the final minute, Stevens again called timeout and again called Smart’s number. This time the Bucks tackled him on his way to the basket. No whistles blown. Smart fell into the lane, ball loose. For a brief second, he became the hunted, only to emerge with the ball from a pile of three Bucks, throw a bounce pass from his backside to a wide-open Al Horford, who put Milwaukee on ice and closed the freezer door behind him.
“That’s a jump ball for most players in the league, but he finds a way to make plays out of it,” Bucks center Tyler Zeller said of Smart. “He plays extremely hard, and he makes teams better, even though you look at the stat sheet and it looks like he didn’t do a whole lot most nights.”
“If it comes down to it,” added C’s forward Jaylen Brown, “if I had to put my money on anybody, no matter who it is, any sport, I’m putting my money on Smart coming up with that ball.”
Smart’s execution was infectious. Rozier and Ojeleye were to their teammate from Texas as the hitchhiker and gas station proprietor were to the chainsaw massacre. The former hounded Eric Bledsoe all night, and when the Bucks fought back, Rozier simply stared him down and buried a dagger 3-pointer in his face. Ojeleye was tasked with stopping Milwaukee’s lone survivor, and by brute force he tied Antetokounmpo down to a series-low 16 points on just 10 shot attempts.
“I think he gets bodied quite a bit,” said Bucks coach Joe Prunty, trying to come up with some explanation for what he just witnessed. “I’m concerned about how much they’re pushing.”
Damage done, C’s co-owner Steve Pagliuca wandered the Garden halls, calling Smart “the Lawrence Taylor of basketball” — somehow less flattering than Leatherface. Smart’s stat line was as undecipherable as ever: nine points, seven shots, five rebounds, five turnovers, four assists, three blocks, two fouls, one steal and a 92-87 win that left Milwaukee gasping for air.
“The confidence for us right now is high,” said Smart. “This was a big game for us, especially after they pounded us at their place two games in a row. For us to come back and respond the way we did, I’m proud of this team, I’m proud of the guys, and it was exactly what we needed.”
Bucks employees muttered inside their locker room something about just getting home, where there’s hope of surviving, but it didn’t much seem like anybody wanted to come back to this place. They soon retreated to the team bus, back to Milwaukee. It’s a wonder Marcus Smart wasn’t dancing in the streets behind them, waving a chainsaw maniacally overhead.