BOSTON -- Marcus Smart was boxing out JJ Redick when Marcus Morris' shot bounced hard off the back rim and ticked off the glass. Joel Embiid and his monstrous, 7-foot frame shuffled forward, poised to snare the rebound over the top of a player at least 8 inches shorter than him.
Smart had other plans.
Smart, with his right hand heavily taped from the thumb surgery he has rushed himself back from to help an undermanned Celtics team, timed his leap and somehow pried the ball away from Embiid with his healthier left hand. Smart, with his back to the basket, went back up quickly, double-clutched as the Philadelphia 76ers big man made contact trying to swat his shot and somehow flicked the ball over the front of the rim for an and-1 bucket as TD Garden lost its collective mind.
"Winning plays." It's a phrase that Smart has made part of the lexicon here by routinely producing these sort of game-changing moments. Usually, it's on the defensive end, such as pouncing on a loose ball (which is how he injured his thumb in the first place) or making an assist from the ground (like he did to help seal a pivotal Game 5 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks during the last round).
Smart missed his first five shots Monday while laboring through an unsightly first half. To make matters worse, Embiid literally kicked Smart in the groin on the final play of the third quarter (a frustrated Smart vented that Embiid should have been called for a foul). Smart needed a moment for the pain to subside. Then he stomped to the locker room while ripping apart the splint protecting his thumb in frustration.
Smart scored all nine of his points in that third quarter, a frame in which the Celtics refused to let the visiting Sixers make a charge, and Boston emerged with a 117-101 triumph in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Game 2 is back here on Thursday.
"I just had great position," Smart said of his offensive rebound that shifted the momentum when Philadelphia was desperately trying to make a run. "We ran the play, we got a great look, and that's kind of how things go if you do everything you're supposed to do."
On this night, there was no shortage of heroes for the Celtics, as three Boston players posted career highs in postseason scoring.
Terry Rozier, who showed up in a Drew Bledsoe jersey designed as a final jab at first-round rival Eric Bledsoe, scored a postseason-high 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists.
Al Horford, the MVP of Boston's first-round series, was spectacular again, with 26 points on ultra-efficient 10-of-12 shooting, while spearheading a defense that held Simmons to modest numbers (18 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and a game-worst 7 turnovers).
It was the first time that three Celtics players scored 25 or more points in a non-overtime postseason game since Boston's original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish did so in 1987, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The injury-ravaged Celtics were considered underdogs to many entering this series, especially playing without Jaylen Brown (hamstring strain) on Monday. But Boston responded with one of its best offensive performances of the postseason.
"No one did see this coming but us," Smart said. "We have a lot of confidence in our team right now, and we're playing great basketball.
"We were down a lot of guys, and people think we're weak and we're not as strong as a team because we don't have certain players. But we're all professionals, we've all been here, we all work and we all have the same goal in mind -- and that's to win. Regardless of who we have or don't have, we go out there and play."
Maybe it was the rust of an extended layoff after dispatching the Miami Heat in five games, but the Sixers struggled with their shots. Philadelphia shot just 19.2 percent from beyond the arc (5-of-26) and 42.2 percent from the floor overall (35-of-83). By comparison, Rozier made more 3s than Philadelphia as a whole (7-of-9 for Rozier from downtown).
"I can't say [the layoff hurt the Sixers], but you can't blame that on being rusty of us. I mean, we're NBA players," Embiid said. "We're in the playoffs. We gotta be ready for every game. We weren't ready tonight, so Thursday we've gotta do a better job."
On the day the Celtics and 76ers renewed their storied playoff rivalry, Boston just so happened to bring Bill Russell to town and give him a baseline seat next to the visitors bench. Russell produced some of his memorable moments while battling with Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain, and he was a not-so-subtle reminder of the history between the two teams.
With a green "Beat Phila" T-shirt -- a spinoff of the rare time these two fan bases bonded over a common evil (the Los Angeles Lakers) some 36 years ago -- draped over his lap, Russell watched his former team go up 1-0 in the series.
Embiid finished with 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds, while Redick had 20 points.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens believes his team can be better defensively.
"I didn't think [the defense] was as good as any of the last three Milwaukee games," Stevens said. "But there were parts about it that were good, but we have to clean up quite a bit. They exposed us in a lot of areas. And credit them for that. They run great stuff, and it's hard to guard all those guys and all those actions."