CLEVELAND -- Forty-five minutes after the Boston Celtics had wrapped up their final practice before the start of the 2017 postseason, Marcus Smart was one of the last players on the court. Having already gone through a rigorous shooting exercise, he was now navigating his way back around the 3-point arc with assistant coach Jay Larranaga positioned directly behind him, hand on Smart's back, ensuring proper form as he shot.
Given that Smart connected on a mere 28.3 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, it was eye-catching to watch him shoot so consistently during this workout. Though Smart would later downplay the sequence, it's clear the Celtics have yearned to make his 3-point shot a more consistent weapon in order to maximize Smart's two-way impact on the court.
Through 16 playoff appearances, Smart is shooting 41.3 percent from beyond the arc. His unexpected uptick in accuracy reached a pinnacle on Sunday night when, making a spot start for injured Isaiah Thomas, Smart connected on 7 of 10 3-point attempts while scoring a career-high 27 points as Boston rallied from a 21-point deficit for a 111-108 triumph against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Really, just coming in, I just kept telling myself, 'You have nothing to lose, just go out there and play. You've been working hard throughout this whole year on your game. Just let it flow and let it show,'" Smart said at his postgame news conference after Sunday's win.
To appreciate Smart's performance in Game 3 you must recognize how much he has struggled with his 3-point shot during his career. Smart shot just 19.5 percent (15-of-77) on pull-up 3s this season, according to the league's shot-tracking database. Those woes were so obvious that it seemed the team had reeled him in a bit in the postseason, stressing that the majority of his 3-point attempts should come off catch-and-shoot opportunities (Smart shot a still-less-than-stellar 31.2 percent on that play type during the regular season).
As part of his seven 3-point barrage during Sunday's win, Smart went 4-for-5 on pull-up attempts. Maybe his most absurd sequence came with Boston down three with six minutes to play. Dribbling over the midcourt line, Smart accelerated toward the 3-point arc, went between his legs and behind his back with his dribble then hopped backward and, with Cleveland's JR Smith lunging to contest, drilled a 25-foot bomb to tie the score.
Smart's teammates on the bench spilled out onto the court in celebration, the looks on their faces confirming that few expected Smart to morph into Stephen Curry. As the Celtics PR staff would later note, Smart joined Curry as the only two players this postseason to log 27-plus points, 5-plus rebounds, 7-plus assists and at least seven 3-pointers in a playoff game. It was the first time in Celtics history a Boston player had reached those thresholds in the postseason.
The most impressive part to Celtics coach Brad Stevens wasn't necessarily the accuracy Smart displayed, but the way he confidently made those shots in key spots.
Smart's 3-point struggles have been well-chronicled throughout his career and Stevens has routinely gone to bat for Smart, often noting how Smart could go scoreless most nights and still routinely impact winning because of his playmaking, defense and overall tenacity.
Stevens has full confidence in Smart when shooting in a big moment.
"We can talk about his shooting all year long but, when it's in a big moment, that kid is going to rise to the occasion. He just always has," Stevens said. "That's one of the reasons why, if he goes through a funk at some time in March, [you say,] 'Shoot yourself out of it and we believe in you and let it fly.' Because, in this moment, when we needed him the most, he made huge shots."
Chauncey Billups, now an ESPN analyst who was nicknamed "Mr. Big Shot" during his playing days, took to Twitter during Game 3 and wrote, "Y'all say what u want about Marcus Smart but that kid makes winning plays every game in the 4th."
Still, Smart's Game 3 outburst was staggering. Before the game, Stevens had told his players that no one player was going to fill the shoes of Thomas, whose season ended in Game 2 when he aggravated a right hip injury. Smart didn't listen and, after his big shooting performance, he told Thomas in a FaceTime chat in the Celtics' jubilant locker room that he had, "channeled my inner IT."
It's fair to wonder if Smart can harness something from these playoffs and carry his more consistent shooting into the future. There's a big enough sample here -- 16 games is the equivalent of 20 percent of the regular season -- and Smart is hoisting nearly four 3-pointers per game.
"[Teammates] and the coaching staff did a really good job of just encouraging me, especially when my shot hasn't been falling," Smart said. "They've just really been on me, staying on me to stay positive and keep going. Coming into [Game 3], I just really wanted to stay positive with myself and make sure that I could do everything that I could do to help my team, whether that was scoring, passing the ball, playing defense, whatever it was."
Smart said he took his biggest pride in directing the offense with Thomas out. Even beyond his team-high seven assists, Smart was able to get Boston into its sets, and the team's offensive rating was a crisp 124.3 when Smart was on the floor.
"I think it started with Marcus Smart, how poised he was at the end of the game," Avery Bradley said. "He was able to get us in our sets and make the right play, make some really big plays for our team."
Reflecting on Smart's performance on Monday, Stevens added, "He was terrific. He's been so good for us all three years. He brings a competitive spirit of belief that we need and that we lean on and rely on. I think that [Sunday] night obviously the shot-making is what everybody talks about. But he did so many other great things when he was defending multiple positions, multiple actions, posting up for us, got the big offensive rebound kick-out that he kicked out to Al [Horford] late for a 3. He just makes a lot of winning plays."
It has been a wild postseason for Smart. There was a point early in the second-round series against the Wizards when Smart actually took himself out of a game because he felt like he was hurting the team with miscues.
Smart is shooting just 37.3 percent overall, including 32.7 percent on all his 2-point attempts. Celtics fans still cringe a bit when he pulls up early in the shot clock, but he's making the shots when they matter most.
Smart has never lacked for confidence, but you can tell he's especially self-assured now while embracing the notion that pundits don't believe the Celtics are capable of rallying back into this series.
"Our whole philosophy throughout this playoffs is this is us versus everybody else, and that's just how we've been throughout the playoffs," Smart said. "That's the team we are and that's how we play, especially with one of our better players down in IT. Everybody really got us down, so we've really got that mentality of we've just got to keep rolling."