BOSTON -- With the words "Mama's Boy" and "I fight, you fight" scrawled on the side of his sneakers, Celtics guard Marcus Smart stepped to the scorer's table late in the first quarter of Tuesday's Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks and felt a rush of adrenaline.
Not only had Smart spent the past six weeks sidelined while recovering from thumb surgery, but during his rehab, he learned that his 63-year-old mother, Camellia, had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Yet even as she prepped for an uncertain future, she implored Smart to return to Boston, telling her son that seeing him on the court again would put a smile on her face.
So now all of Smart's emotions swelled as the TD Garden crowd roared when he checked in for the first time since March 11, the night he tore a ligament in his right shooting hand while diving for a loose ball. And how appropriate that, just 40 seconds into his first shift, Smart again was sprawling on the Garden parquet trying to corral a steal.
Smart's intensity, particularly on the defensive end, rubbed off on the teammates that serenaded him with a standing ovation upon learning he had been cleared to return to game action. Smart helped the Celtics bottle up Giannis Antetokounmpo and limited his supporting cast while emerging with a 92-87 triumph to take a 3-2 series lead.
After stepping down from the podium following a postgame news conference, Smart planned to call his mother at the Texas hospital where she's currently undergoing cancer treatments. Smart said she's responding well to initial infusions and he's hopeful she'll continue to progress.
Heeding her words, Smart has embraced the diversion of basketball, and he savored the opportunity to be back on the court Tuesday night. But the words on his shoes were a constant reminder of why he was there.
"I wrote 'Mama's Boy' and 'I fight, you fight' -- that's what I told her. As long as you keep fighting, I'm going to keep fighting," Smart said. "And I put, 'F--- Cancer' -- and that's just how I feel. We're going to beat this. My mom's doing well right now. She's getting better. And things are looking on the upside for us. So we're still positive, we're still praying, and we've still got faith."
Things are looking on the upside for the Celtics, as well. Boston had hardly looked like a team that ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency during the regular season while enduring repeated lapses in Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee, as the Bucks evened the series.
But the return of Smart, coupled with coach Brad Stevens' surprise decision to slide rookie Semi Ojeleye into the starting lineup, helped the Celtics contain Antetokounmpo as few teams have done this season. Boston's switch-happy, small-ball lineups smothered Antetokounmpo's drives and limited his transition opportunities. He finished with just 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting.
The Greek Freak himself could attest to Smart's defensive impact. There was a sequence late in the first quarter in which Smart sniffed out an incoming alley-oop lob and leaped high before swatting Antetokounmpo at the basket with his left hand.
"Marcus, man, he played hard," Antetokounmpo said. "He definitely gives that edge to the team, defensively and offensively. He definitely helped them a lot.
"He can definitely be an X factor for the Celtics."
Smart finished with nine points, five rebounds and four assists over 25 minutes. He missed five of his seven shots and had five turnovers. It was far from a perfect return, but Smart did what he typically does and made all the little plays.
More importantly, he made all the winning plays, like late in the fourth quarter with Boston clinging to a five-point lead:
Smart tripped trying to drive at the basket, and four Bucks converged as he was sprawled on the court near the free-throw line, trying desperately to maintain possession. Smart kept the ball away from eight prying hands, even with Thon Maker's hands near his face and Antetokounmpo getting a hand on the ball. Maybe more amazing, Smart eventually fed a wide-open Al Horford on the baseline for a game-sealing layup.
Smart and Horford had previously teamed up on a loud alley-oop slam, a reminder of the chemistry that they had showcased throughout the regular season. Horford finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds, embracing the big man role as Stevens removed Greg Monroe from his rotation and played Aron Baynes for limited minutes off the bench.
Smart's versatility allowed Stevens to explore new lineups.
"[Smart's return] means a lot for our team," Horford said. "I think I said it earlier in the year that he was kind of like the soul of our team. Just everything that he brings -- his toughness, unselfishness, just a hard-nosed player, and we fed off his energy tonight.
"I felt like the crowd fed off of it, we fed off of it, and it's just good to have him back. It's just been genuinely a really nice surprise for our group, because I didn't think he was coming back. I didn't want to get our hopes up even when I heard it was a possibility. We're just happy to get him back, and he just had a huge impact on our team tonight."
Smart was expected to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery in mid-March. His return date slowly crept up in recent weeks, and Smart made a dash to New York on Monday to gain final clearance from his physician to resume contact activities.
When Smart walked into the team's practice facility on Tuesday morning for shootaround, his teammates already knew the good news.
"As soon as I walked into the locker room, everyone started cheering and clapping," Smart said. "That just shows the camaraderie that we have as a team, as a group. We lean on each other, and that's the characteristic of a great team. We have a ways to go, but we're still pushing."
Terry Rozier noted how Smart makes teammates want to "go to war and battle."
Jaylen Brown said of Smart's fourth-quarter scramble, "If I had to put my money on anybody, no matter who it is, any sport, I'm putting my money on Smart coming up with that ball."
There is still work to be done, and the Celtics' first chance to close out this series is Thursday night in Milwaukee. Smart's presence has provided a necessary jolt of energy, but Boston must find a way to harness that defensive intensity whether or not Smart is on the court.
But Tuesday night couldn't have played out better for Smart, especially knowing his mother was watching from afar.
"It meant everything for me to be out there, for her to see me on the court, and playing and doing what I love to do," Smart said. "And all the sacrifices that she made for me. So it was big for me to be out there tonight."