Maybe it was being back in Oklahoma. More likely, it was being matched up against one of the league's elite stars. Either way, Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart produced a career night and might have started a little rivalry with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook in the process.
Smart, who played his college ball at nearby Oklahoma State, scored a career-high 26 points and spearheaded Boston's collective effort to limit Westbrook. Smart helped Boston rally from as much as 11 down before a dominant second half propelled the visiting Celtics to a 100-85 triumph Sunday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Asked after the game about Smart's two-way impact, Westbrook wasn't in a hurry to praise Boston's young guard.
"He had a good game. There's 82 games I do this," Westbrook told reporters. "Don't get it twisted."
Smart displayed a rarely seen offensive aggression and coupled it with his typical defensive tenacity. He was so hyped up that, after being called for a questionable reach-in foul after stripping Westbrook on the perimeter late in the second quarter, Smart earned a technical foul (and maybe tip-toed the ejection line) while barking at referee Zach Zarba about the call.
Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft, clearly enjoyed the challenge of going against Westbrook.
"That's the type of guy that Russ is. He loves challenges and he's gonna try to do his best every time, and vice versa with me," Smart said. "You put two guys like that going against each other and, obviously, we're going to knock heads."
Pressed on Westbrook's intimidation tactics, Smart added, "You can't be [intimidated]. And Russ knows that and understands it. And I know it. I love those type of challenges. If it was easy, you wouldn't want to do it."
Smart set an aggressive defensive tone from the start and never really let up. That much was evident in the fourth quarter when Evan Turner gave the ball away and allowed D.J. Augustin to break out in transition for what looked like an easy layup. Smart had been on the opposite side of the floor when Augustin started the other way but charged hard and slowed only to time his approach from behind. Smart isn't the tallest or most athletic guard, but he produced the chase-down block at the basket -- a left-handed swat of Augustin's right-handed layup -- and even corralled the rebound.
It was only a sliver of Smart's big night, one in which he posted the career-high 26 points on 9-of-14 shooing to go along with eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and the block over 34 minutes.
"I think that he likes this gym," quipped Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Smart scored 25 points -- his previous career best -- in Oklahoma City last season and seems to get a boost from playing in front of familiar faces.
Smart missed three games this month due to a freak big toe sprain. He displayed rust upon returning last week, but on Sunday, he didn't just bring his normal defensive tenacity, he was aggressive offensively. He probed in the pick-and-roll, attacking the basket when there was space and confidently shooting his mid-range jumper. Midway through the first quarter, he split Steven Adams and Dion Waiters before putting up a high-arcing, right-handed floater in the lane that rattled home.
With Stevens looking for more post touches in the third quarter, Smart set up shop in the paint early in the second half. Muscling Westbrook on the blocks, Smart spun and produced an off-balance layup when Westbrook got caught trying to pull the chair and swipe at the ball. But maybe Smart's most impressive offensive series came late in the third quarter when, curling toward the hoop off a side pick-and-roll, he outraced swat-happy Serge Ibaka to the rim and managed to kiss a floating layup high off the glass.
Defensively, Smart was a constant pest on Westbrook, who posted a game-high 27 points but on inefficient 5-of-20 shooting. Stevens was quick to point out that Boston deployed much of its nine-man rotation, especially Smart and Avery Bradley, on Westbrook. Stevens also said the bigs on the back line protected the rim as Westbrook charged in with a head of steam off pick-and-rolls.
Defense defined Smart's night despite the career offensive numbers. Two days after absolutely smothering Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver in Boston's win over Atlanta, Smart did all he could to make things difficult for Westbrook. Smart wasn't always perfect and Westbrook produced his own highlight-caliber block on Smart, but Boston's guard fueled his team's rally with his grit.
And Smart doesn't need Westbrook's affirmation to confirm his impactful night.
Asked about how Westbrook's intimidation didn't work on Smart or his teammates, Stevens said, "Our guys aren’t scared."
Smart's reward for his efforts? He'll get to try his hand at limiting James Harden on Monday night in Houston.
"[Smart] plays [defense] every night," Stevens said. "And I think his offense has really improved. I said before [Sunday's] game, it’s too bad he had those two games where he was shaking the rust off. But that’s what it was, and the law of averages played out [Sunday]."