When Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart left his feet to chase a fourth-quarter offensive rebound there were four Phoenix Suns players surrounding him, including 7-foot-1 Alex Len crashing from behind, and Smart essentially got swallowed up in a sea of gray jerseys.
Somehow, it was Smart with the ball in front of him when the pack returned to the ground, but he didn't have control quite yet. So with about six arms swiping at the ball in front of him, Smart managed to gain control as the ball slipped behind his back. He wasn't out of the woods though, as three Suns players trapped him on the baseline. Smart somehow reversed his direction, tip-toed the baseline, and sneaked a bounce pass through two defenders to a wide open Jonas Jerebko beyond the 3-point arc.
As the Boston bench stood in unison, Jerebko got a defender to fly by with a pump fake then calmly drained the 3-pointer that pushed Boston's lead to nine with 6:34 to play. The Celtics held off the Suns for a 102-99 triumph at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the sequence proved to be an important part of helping Boston escape with its fourth straight victory.
In a week in which pundits have stood atop their soap boxes and picked apart Smart's game amid his post-All-Star shooting slump, Smart's hustle sequence served as yet another reminder of why he's so important to this Celtics team.
Smart finished with nine points on 2-of-7 shooting with eight rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block. He played 32 minutes, 37 seconds off the bench, the third highest total on the team behind only starters Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner. Smart finished plus-seven in plus/minus, the second best number on the team behind Jerebko's plus-12.
In Smart's floor time, the Celtics owned an offensive rating of 109.3, or 5.1 points higher than the team's game average. For all the laments about his individual shooting woes, Boston's team production remains excellent during Smart's slump. His post-All-Star net rating of plus-4 points per 100 possessions is the third best mark on the team behind only injured Jae Crowder (plus-5.1) and Thomas (plus-4.1).
Celtics coach Brad Stevens singled out Smart's offensive rebound after Saturday's win.
"Those are the things that make Marcus special," Stevens told reporters in Phoenix. "Sometimes those go in a box score, sometimes they don't. But he does them every game. That's why I don't get too caught up in the box score stuff with him. He impacts winning and tonight was a good example of that."
The 6-foot-4 Smart was active on the glass throughout Saturday's game. He batted a ball back out late in the first half that led to an Avery Bradley second-chance jumper. Six of his rebounds came in the second half, including four in the fourth quarter.
The offensive rebound that fed Jerebko fired up Boston's bench. Thomas, in particular, emphatically cheered the sequence.
"That's what Marcus Smart does," Thomas said in a postgame interview with Comcast SportsNet. "That's the definition of what he does. I don't know how he gets those rebounds, how he gets those loose balls. But he always finds a way."
Smart's offensive funk continues. He's shooting just 30.1 percent overall in 18 games since February's All-Star break and a cringe-worthy 18.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. On Saturday, he looked as hesitant to shoot as he has during his funk, but muscled home a couple of buckets in the paint despite missing all five 3-pointers he attempted.
And even while his shot isn't falling, Smart has found other ways to help the Celtics continue their pursuit of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston is a half-game behind the Atlanta Hawks and a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat in a log-jammed East where Charlotte lingers nearby as well.
Smart caused at least three Phoenix turnovers by drawing offensive fouls. And he played his typically feisty defense, doing many of the little things that won't show up in the box score.
"That's my main focus," Smart told reporters in Phoenix. "Even though my shot isn't falling, find a way to impact this game."