MILWAUKEE -- For those who have never believed in Marcus Smart as the right point guard for this iteration of the Boston Celtics, Game 5 was proof positive. In the final minute of the Celtics' collapse, he dribbled the ball 37 times, compared to just one for the rest of the team, had two crucial turnovers and saw his potential game-winning layup blocked by Jrue Holiday.
Facing elimination on the road against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, Game 6 was a make-or-break moment for the entire team, but there was an added sense of significance for Smart, who was so wracked by guilt and frustration that he hadn't been able to sleep the past few days.
"Those final minutes ate me alive," Smart said. "My guys -- teammates, coaches -- were doing a good job making sure that I stayed as composed as I could and keep my mind right. Because I was really hurting after that. I felt like I let my team down. 'Just be you,' that's all they kept telling me. [Celtics assistant coach] Damon Stoudamire pulled me to the side and just told me -- cause I dropped my head a couple times in those possessions -- he was like 'I've never seen you do that, and I just want you not to lose confidence in yourself because we need you.' Coming into tonight I just wanted to go out there and make it up for my teammates and help 'em out and try to get this win."
For those who have always believed in Marcus Smart as the right point guard for this iteration of the Boston Celtics, Game 6 was proof positive. A 21-point, seven-rebound, five-assist, zero-turnover masterclass complete with terrific defense and savvy game management.
As any true point guard should, Smart set the tone early. He hit two 3-pointers in the opening minutes to help the Celtics jump out to a quick lead, and scored or assisted on 17 of the Celtics' 28 first-quarter points. His confidence and composure were contagious, and ensured there would be no carry over from what happened in Game 5.
"That was to be expected," Jayson Tatum said. "We got all the confidence in the world in Smart. We knew that he was gonna come back and be the player that we need him to be on the road in Game 6. He stepped up. He was big for us, especially in the beginning making the right plays."
Smart's 21 points and five 3-pointers were both postseason highs, but the most important and impressive aspect of his performance was the way he ran the show. This was his first playoff game without a turnover since Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals.
In particular, he had tremendous poise while the Bucks were making their run in the fourth quarter; he didn't try to force the issue, but he also didn't let the offense get stagnant. That's been the Achilles heel for the Celtics this season, and keeping his team out of the iso-ball trap was a point of emphasis for Smart. He took control, kept the ball moving and put his teammates in position to succeed.
No play was more emblematic of his leadership than when the Celtics were up by eight with just over five minutes remaining. Tatum was on fire, had scored the team's last 10 points and was demanding the ball in the mid-post against Jrue Holiday. Looking off your superstar in that situation takes courage, but Smart wanted a great shot, not just a good one. So instead of dumping the ball down to Tatum for an iso, he waited, let Brown come off a double screen and found him for a wide-open 3 that pushed the lead to 11 and essentially sealed the game.
Those are the decisions that win playoff games. Those are the decisions that show why Smart's fans and teammates love and trust him. Those are the decisions that the Celtics need more often from their point guard.
"We all hear it: 'We go as I go, I'm the heart and soul of this team,'" Smart said. "My teammates say that all the time. I try to be that for them."
Smart was all that in Game 6, and earned redemption in the process. If he can do it again on Sunday, the Celtics will earn a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.