BOSTON — Marcus Smart was boxing out JJ Redick when Marcus Morris‘ shot bounced hard off the back rim and ticked off the glass. Joel Embiid and his monstrous, 7-foot frame shuffled forward, poised to snare the rebound over the top of a player at least 8 inches shorter than him.
Smart had other plans.
Smart, his right hand heavily taped from the thumb surgery he has rushed himself back from to help an undermanned Boston Celtics team, timed his leap and somehow pried the ball away from Embiid with his healthier left hand. Smart, his back to the basket, went back up quick, double-clutched as Embiid made contact trying to swat his shot, and somehow flicked the ball over the front of the rim for an and-1 bucket as TD Garden lost its collective mind.
Marcus Smart steals a rebound from Joel Embiid and then sinks an off-balanced reverse layup while drawing a foul.
Winning plays. It’s a phrase that Smart has made part of the lexicon here by routinely producing these sort of game-changing moments. Usually, it’s on the defensive end — such as pouncing on a loose ball (which is how he injured his thumb in the first place) or making an assist from the ground (like he did to help seal a pivotal, Game 5 victory against the Bucks last round).
Smart missed his first five shots Monday while laboring through an unsightly first half. To make matters worse, Embiid literally kicked Smart in the groin on the final play of the third quarter. Smart needed a moment for the pain to subside, then stomped to the locker room while ripping apart the splint protecting his thumb in frustration.
Smart scored all nine of his points in that third quarter, a frame in which the Celtics refused to let the visiting Sixers make a charge, and Boston emerged with a 117-101 triumph in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Boston leads the best-of-seven series 1-0. Game 2 is back here Thursday night.
On this night, there were no shortage of heroes for the Celtics.
Terry Rozier, who showed up in a Drew Bledsoe jersey designed as a final jab at first-round rival Eric Bledsoe, scored a postseason high 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and six assists.
Al Horford passes the ball ahead to Jayson Tatum, who glides to a powerful, one-handed dunk.
The Celtics faithful chant, “Not a rookie” at Ben Simmons prior to his free throw attempt.
Al Horford, the MVP of Boston’s first-round series, was spectacular again, with 26 points on ultra-efficient 10-of-12 shooting all while spearheading a defense that held Simmons to modest numbers (18 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and a game-worst 7 turnovers).
Maybe it was the rust of an extended layoff after dispatching the Miami Heat in five games, but the Sixers struggled with their shots. Philadelphia shot just 19.2 percent beyond the arc (5-of-26) and 42.2 percent from the floor overall (35-of-83). By comparison, Rozier made more 3s by himself than Philadelphia as a whole (7-of-9 for Rozier from downtown).
On the day the Celtics and 76ers renewed their storied playoff rivalry, Boston just so happened to bring Bill Russell to town and gave him a baseline seat next to the visitors’ bench. Russell produced some of his memorable moments while battling with Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain, and he was a not-so subtle reminder of the history between the two teams.
With a green “Beat Phila” T-shirt — a spinoff of the rare time these two fan bases bonded over a common evil (the Los Angeles Lakers) some 36 years ago — draped over his lap, Russell watched his former team take Game 1 of the series.
Embiid finished with 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds, while Redick had 20 points.