The Boston Celtics had waited for weeks to get Marcus Smart back on the floor after missing the last six weeks with a thumb injury.
Smart finally returned Tuesday night and it’s not a coincidence that the Celtics are now just one victory away from the second round and can lock it up Thursday night when they visit the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series at the Bradley Center
Smart only scored nine points in 25 minutes of work but was a force on the defensive end, helping hold the Bucks to a series-low 36 percent shooting percentage.
“It means a lot for our team,” Celtics forward Al Horford said of Smart’s return. “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 (in Game 5).”
To punch their ticket to the next round, the Celtics will need more of the same defensive effort — especially against all-star Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo finished an assist short of a triple-double but scored a series-low 16 points while attempting just 10 shots in the Bucks’ 92-87 loss after averaging 27.8 points on 17.8 shot attempts through the first four games of the series.
Antetokounmpo acknowledged the additional pressure provided by Smart and rookie Semi Ojeleye, who Boston coach Brad Stevens moved into the starting lineup to help contain Antetokounmpo, but he put the blame on himself for the lack of production.
“I feel like the shots I had, the moments in the game that they were quality shots, so I took them,” Antetokounmpo said. “Of course, in Game 6 I got to come out being more aggressive.
Interim Bucks coach Joe Prunty said his team needs a better all-around effort if it wants to keep its season alive for another day.
“It’s not just one guy, it’s everyone we call on,” Prunty said. “We need them to come in and play solid defense, we need guys to come in and knock down shots.”
Smart’s presence alone will make that difficult and it also adds another layer to what has already been a physical series.
Bucks point guard Matthew Dellavedova expects more of the same when the teams meet again Thursday night.
“The sixth time playing the same team … it’s going to get physical and a little bit chippy,” he said. “That’s the same case whether you’re playing board games with your family. You keep playing with the same people over and over it’s going to get chippy.”
A loss Thursday night would not only end the Bucks’ season, but also mark the final game played at the Bradley Center, their home since 1988. The team is moving into a new facility located right next door next season.
Milwaukee, though, is hoping to ride the same home-court advantage it enjoyed while winning Games 3 and 4 and force a Game 7 for the first time since 2010.
“We’ve been here before,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve just got to play hard, be disciplined, move the ball, rebound the ball and we’re playing at home. We’ve got to feed off the energy, make shots and hopefully we can get a win.”