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Even after a break, the Brooklyn Nets are still rolling.

They defeated the Boston Celtics 120-109 Thursday and have won 11 of their last 12 games, improving to 25-13. Brooklyn also snapped a four-game winning streak for Boston, which drops to 19-18.

Kyrie Irving dropped 40 points for the Nets, while Boston was paced by 31 points from Jayson Tatum.

Notable Performers

Kyrie Irving, Nets: 40 PTS, 8 REB
Jayson Tatum, Celtics: 31 PTS
Marcus Smart, Celtics: 19 PTS
James Harden, Nets: 22 PTS, 10 REB
The Return of Marcus Smart

The Celtics’ strong start to the season took a nosedive when guard Marcus Smart was sidelined with a calf strain. He missed 18 games dating back to Feb. 2, and the Celtics were 9-9 in that time, though they struggled to find their stride until they won four games to close out the first half.

Smart’s return was crucial against the Nets, even though they were only set to have two of their stars take the court as Kevin Durant remained out with a hamstring injury. Smart’s defense was clutch the last time he was on the same Fake Boston Celtics Jerseys court as James Harden.

Against the Rockets in February 2020, the Celtics fell 111-110, but Harden was limited to 7-of-24 shooting from the field and hit just four of 17 attempts from deep, according to Land of Basketball.

But he was also integral to the Celtics’ success this season. Before he was injured, Boston ranked 11th in defensive rating, and it dropped to 23rd dating back to Jan. 30, Smart’s last outing.

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Head coach Brad Stevens said pregame that Smart would be limited to 20-22 minutes in his return.

He played 10 of those minutes in the first half, scoring eight points as the Nets crept to a three-point lead.

Boston Celtics
@celtics
𝐜𝐨𝐛𝐫𝐚 𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐤𝐞 🐍 https://t.co/ABnW035O1r

Boston opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run and Smart emerged in his third go on the court to help the Celtics chase Brooklyn, doubling his point total from the first half in the frame.

Boston Celtics
@celtics
catch + shoot 🏀 https://t.co/p61zB03cyc

He ended the night with 19 points on four-of-six shooting from the field, going eight-of-nine from the line.

Smart was the leading scorer off of the bench and the second-leading scorer on the team, coupled with an impressive 31 points from Tatum that helped Boston stay in the game and nearly complete a comeback in the final minutes—with a two-point game in the final four minutes—before Irving’s 20th-career 40-point game broke it open in the end.

Celtics Can’t Stop Kyrie Irving

The Celtics haven’t faced the fully loaded Nets this season, since they played Brooklyn on Christmas Day, before Harden joined the team. They didn’t get the chance to experience the Big Three on Thursday either, since Durant remained out.

But Brooklyn has played well Durant’s absence, going 10-1 in its last 11 games without him. Kyrie Irving and Harden have more than managed to fill the void, with Harden scoring at least 20 points in each game, while Irving hasn’t put up fewer than 16, though he missed two games during that span.

Against his former team on Thursday, Irving starred in helping the Nets to a 58-55 halftime lead after they trailed by as many as 11 points in the first quarter. He grabbed 18 points on seven-of-11 shooting from the field in the first half, while Harden was slowed behind him with just 11 points.

While those two took some time to get going, Landry Shamet tallied 12 points in 15 first-half minutes off of the bench.

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As strong as Irving was in the opening half, he was even more of a presence after the break.

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@BrooklynNets
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Keith Smith
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Not much you can do when Kyrie has it going like this. He’s so hard to double and trap too because of his ballhanding.

Defensively, Robert Williams III was strong for Boston in his 17 minutes off of the bench, with six blocks, four assists and four rebounds, but his limited time wasn’t enough for the Celtics to stop Brooklyn.

Irving ended the night with 40 points on 15-of-23 shooting, almost singlehandedly handing Brooklyn the win.

What’s Next?

The Celtics will travel to take on the struggling Houston Rockets on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

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Recently, Bleacher Report ranked the most underrated players in the NBA and, sure enough, Maarcus Smart of the Boston Celtics placed highly.
Over the past two decades, the Boston Celtics have been one of the most consistently successful teams in the NBA. Making the postseason on 16 separate occasions during this span, the team is seemingly always seen as a threat to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy come year’s end.

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The past six years have been more of the same, with stupendous regular seasons that inevitably bleed into extended playoff runs — with guys like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker in tow, this level of dominance should still continue moving forward.

However, if one were to ask a Boston Celtics fan who the heart and soul of their favorite NBA team is, they’d be hard-pressed not to say Marcus Smart.

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A 2x NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, the Swiss Army man has proven capable of filling many holes and playing various positions within Brad Stevens’ rotation throughout the years.

Now, without their All-Star guard in Walker, the team has still finds themselves atop the conference standings, as they hold the best record in the east at 7-3.

This is, in large, due to Smart’s production as team’s replacement at the starting one spot.

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The Boston Celtics were able to win on Wednesday night, but Marcus Smart almost cost the team a victory. Simply, he needs to play smarter.
So far in 2021, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Boston Celtics. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have taken the next step and Payton Pritchard might be the steal of the 2020 NBA Draft.

But one issue is Marcus Smart. His decision making is getting very close to costing the team games.

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To Smart’s credit, he is having a decent number statistically. He is averaging 12.1 points and 6.6 assists.

But the problem is Smart’s shot selection. He consistently takes poor shots early in the shot clock. This isn’t just in normal game scenarios either, he also does this in crunch time.

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Smart decided to take on the entire Heat defense in Boston’s final possession and of course he missed. If it wasn’t for Pritchard grabbing the rebound and scoring, Boston very well could have ended up losing.

With the emergence of Pritchard, Brad Stevens might need to reconsider Smart’s role. Pritchard needs to be apart of Boston’s 2nd unit even when Kemba Walker returns. That could very well mean cutting Smart’s minutes.

It seems at times Smart thinks he is the No.1 guy. He needs to defer more to Tatum and Brown as well as Pritchard when he is hot. Smart is primarily in the game for his defensive skills and not what he can do with the ball in his hands.

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There is no doubt that Smart is amazing on defense. He is arguably the best defender in the NBA and there is no one that he can’t guard.

But when it comes to shooting, Smart makes too many mistakes. If he wants to continue to progress as a player he needs to improve his decision-making. He can’t just be throwing up shots from deep early in the shot clock.

NEXT: Celtics 2020 retrospective: The year of Jayson Tatum
Smart just needs to play smarter. It’s really that simple.

Posting 12.2 points, 6.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game on 36 percent shooting from deep, the seventh-year veteran is proving himself once again to be what Celtics have known about him for quite some time: a do-it-all player who puts his all on the court every single night.

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Unfortunately, however, outside of Boston’s fanbase, Smart’s prowess goes somewhat unnoticed and heavily underappreciated, so much so, in fact, that Bleacher Report has him ranked within their latest list of the 10 most under underappreciated players currently in the NBA.

Citing his defensive dominance and “overwhelmingly positive play” overall, writer Dan Favale believes the 26-year-old to be the league’s fifth-most underappreciated player:

He is only 6’3″ yet is somehow virtually positionless. The majority of his assignments include the toughest backcourt cover, but the Boston Celtics don’t hesitate to occasionally throw him at larger wings and fringe bigs.

No other guard wields Smart’s combination of strength, physicality and craft. He defends like Russell Westbrook plays offense—as a force of nature—but he’s more methodical than blunt. His hands are quick and subtle. The turnovers he creates are their own form of playmaking.

Invariably, however, Smart is a defensive system unto himself in a league that lauds scoring and bigger stoppers. Perception of his shooting also has yet to catch up with his actual shooting. His trips inside the arc have too many twist endings, but he’s drilling 35.5 percent of his threes since 2017-18 and has even turned into more of a threat off the dribble.

Maybe the attention Smart receives will eventually align in scale and tenor with his on-court impact. For now, he is easily one of the league’s most underappreciated players even though he’s one of its best, period.

Though the majority of people familiar with the league don’t see Marcus Smart in this light, fortunately, there are those like Favale and all of us here at HH that will continue to bang the proverbial drum stating that he is heavily underrated and underappreciated.

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The short-handed Boston Celtics returned from a week-long hiatus to dominate the Orlando Magic on Friday night, 124-97.

With Jayson Tatum out (health and safety protocols), Jaylen Brown took over with 21 points and 8 assists to tie his career high. Boston’s bench stepped up big time in the victory with 66 points.

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Highlights: C’s dominate Magic in return
Here are three instant overreactions as the Celtics extend their win streak to five games and improve to 8-3 on the season:

1. This was the C’s best performance of the season so far.

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It may have been against the depleted Magic, but there’s no question this was the Celtics’ best win of the campaign to this point. With no Tatum and several others missing due to health and safety protocols, nearly every active player stepped up to provide big minutes in the 27-point beatdown.

As great as Brown was, the supporting cast’s performance is what made this win so impressive. Semi Ojeleye continued his hot streak with 18 points off the bench to go with 6 rebounds. Jeff Teague was thrown into the starting lineup and contributed 17 points. As a whole, the Celtics shot 51.1 percent from the floor and 40.5 percent from 3. That’ll get the job done.

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Verdict: Not an overreaction.

2. Tacko/Payton Pritchard Mania is here to stay.

Why didn’t we mention Tacko Fall and Payton Pritchard in the previous section, you ask? Well, because they deserve a section of their own.

We’re running out of things to say about Pritchard at this point. The rookie has crushed expectations this season and continued to do so Friday night with 16 points (6-for-13) in 25 minutes. Best of all, he didn’t step out of bounds! Progress.

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Payton Pritchard on Friday scored 16 points off the bench to help lead the Boston Celtics to a 124-97 victory over the Orlando Magic after a week-long hiatus.

The 26th overall pick produced 10 points alone in the second quarter to help the Celtics build a 12-point lead at halftime. Pritchard connected on 6-of-13 shots from the field, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range, while adding four rebounds, three assists and one blocked shot off the bench.

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Pritchard came out and helped the Celtics build a big lead following a strong second-quarter effort. He has often brought those types of performances off the bench and has served as a tremendous source of energy off the bench this season.

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Payton Pritchard showed out for the Celtics tonight. The rookie had 16 points and 4 rebounds off the bench 🔥 @paytonpritch3 pic.twitter.com/VhHiVi1iu0

— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) January 16, 2021

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Boston returned to the court for the first time since Jan. 8 after having three games postponed due to COVID-19 issues. The Celtics were unable to field the league-mandated eight available players due to contact tracing following a positive test on Jayson Tatum, but they showed little rust after leading for much of the evening.

The win by the Celtics marked their fifth straight to improve to 8-3 on the season, the best record by percentage points in the Eastern Conference. Certainly, players like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and others have played a vital role in the hot start but the addition of Pritchard off the bench has also been significant for the team.