Hustle play highlights Celtics' inspired effort against Nuggets

Great hustle leads to easy Celtics basket (0:26)

Celtics guard Marcus Smart smacks a ball down the court that Evan Turner tracks down just before it rolls out of bounds, resulting in Avery Bradley scoring a wide-open layup. (0:26)

DENVER -- You could see the crash coming, but it's not in Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart's nature to avoid contact. So when two yellow Denver Nuggets jerseys started converging from opposite directions on a nearby loose ball, Smart could have easily pulled up and watched what happened.

Instead, Smart did what he so often does -- he threw himself directly into the fray. With a big swing of his left non-shooting hand, Smart managed to not only bat the ball between the two Nuggets while crashing to the floor, but the ball shot forward, landing near the opposite 3-point line.

Evan Turner could have let the ball go. He was barely over midcourt when Smart's batted pass first hit the floor -- and it had ample momentum. By its second bounce, it was just outside the charge circle. But Turner sprinted and managed to backhand the ball with his right hand just before the end line, batting it back into play as he sailed through the escape lane.

Avery Bradley could have stayed in the backcourt. All five Nuggets players didn't bother to initially chase, probably figuring Turner had no chance at the ball, but Bradley elected to trail. His reward? An uncontested two-hand dunk that left Boston's bench spilling onto the floor in celebration.

"Those are plays that help you win," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after his team's 121-101 triumph over the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. "You feel like you're going to win the game, or at least you've given yourself a good chance, when you make plays like that."

The sequence, the sort that these scrappy Celtics have built their reputation on this season, helped Boston fend off the Nuggets, who had rallied from 26 down to pull to within five in the second half. Coming off a disheartening loss in Utah to open the post-All-Star portion of its schedule, Boston's hustle and defensive mindset left Stevens raving, "You could tell there was a purpose, a good pride about us, the whole day."

All the participants in the early fourth-quarter hustle sequence deferred to the others with making the play possible.

"All the credit has to go to Evan for that," Smart said. "He started the break with the tip, and then I overtipped him. And the knowledge of him to know to just tap the ball back in, that he had a guy trailing the play. So all the credit to Evan for that, and then to Avery for not giving up on the play."

Turner, not exactly the most fleet of foot, admitted he wasn't even sure he would get to the ball.

"When [Smart] batted it forward, he hit it super far, so the least I could do was try to run the play out and make something happen," Turner said. "And I took off before I saw Avery kind of like at half court, but I wasn't too positive he was running. I just tapped it back and I saved it and thankfully Avery was there."

Jared Sullinger wandered out on the court to congratulate Turner and his teammates while Denver scrambled for a timeout.

"It was probably the same reaction you saw on Twitter when you tweeted it," Sullinger said of the excitement. "It was an amazing play, winning basketball with Marcus making the hustle play, Evan sprinting down to save it, and Avery there to follow up. Most people think that's an automatic [turnover], but for Avery to have the IQ and for Evan to have the IQ to know that somebody is back there is big time."

The Celtics had seen their defense erode in recent weeks, even as the team played some of its best offensive basketball, masking the decline. Consider this: The Celtics scored 121 points for the third time this month on Sunday, and Boston had scored 121-plus only three times in the five years from February 2011 to January 2016 (or since the team traded Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green).

But make no mistake. The Celtics won Sunday's game in Denver with a renewed emphasis on the defensive end -- posting a stellar rating of 95.3 overall in a high-possession game -- That's roughly 10 points lower than their mark over the first seven games of February, and more in line with their rating from earlier in the season when they set up shop among the top three teams in the league in that metric.

"Everybody needs wakeup calls," Sullinger said when asked about snapping out of the defensive funk. "Even the best teams sometimes need wakeup calls. We understood what we had done the last couple of games and we stepped it up on the defensive end."

Smart, of course, is the poster child for hustle and grit. Like when he dove on the floor against the Brooklyn Nets to steal the ball when Donald Sloan tried to casually walk the dog. Or how he has accepted any defensive assignment, including when he gave up nearly a foot against Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis.

But Smart has a way of making the sort of play that resonates after the win.

"He always plays like that," Sullinger said. "And we do feed off of that."