Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) controls the ball while Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) defends during overtime Sunday. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)
Brad Stevens figured he had nothing to lose.
Paul Millsap had 24 points at the half Sunday night. He came out and had baskets over, in order, Evan Turner, Amir Johnson and Jae Crowder to open the second half. The Celtics defensive engine was leaking oil and fast. They trailed 62-46 midway through the third. The Hawks stopped going to Millsap long enough for the Celtics to catch their breath and catch up by the end of the third quarter.
They trailed just 73-70 heading into the fourth. Millsap had 36, almost half of Atlanta’s points. Then Millsap turned it on again to start the fourth, scoring seven more points before Stevens had seen enough.
The Celtics coach turned to Marcus Smart and essentially said, “You’re up next. Go get ’em Marcus.”
“To be honest I was a little surprised with the height and size advantage that he had,” Smart said of the eight inches he was giving up to Millsap. “But just to really stop and make it hard for him, pressure him and really contest every shot that he took.”
It worked. Millsap scored just two more points, finished with 45 and the Celtics pulled out a stunning 104-95 overtime win Sunday night to even the series at 2-2 heading back to Atlanta Tuesday for Game 5.
“Well, he guarded Millsap the last thirteen minutes of the game, including overtime, probably; maybe the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter,” Stevens said after the game. “Obviously you’re throwing darts a little bit with a guy that’s rolling like that. But one thing about that is, when you’ve scored 45 through three quarters you probably are a little winded. So he probably got to guard him at a good time, but he still fought quite well.
“Kept him off the glass on all those shots, which was excellent, and just made him take tough, contested shots. And then offensively made huge plays. You know, we’re going to need to continue to have Evan (Turner) and Marcus make big plays because Isaiah’s going to be off the ball some, and I thought Marcus’ shots were huge in keeping us in it. Jonas (Jerebko) and Marcus both really made big plays as we were coming back.”
Smart got into Millsap’s body and didn’t allow any easy looks.
“A guy as talented as he is, he came out the gates hot, making us pay for whatever mistake that we did, but guarding a guy like him and him being so hot you just got to contain him the best you can and pressure him,” Smart said. “I tried to use my speed and my quickness against him and just tried to get up under him and make him play on his heels. I just gave it everything I had on the defensive end and made sure he didn’t beat us and try to make somebody else.”
Millsap seemed to fatigue down the stretch, playing 45 of the 53 minutes in the game.
“He’s tough, he is a tough guy, 45 minutes you know no excuse,” Millsap said of his playing time. “If I get the ball down there, especially having the night I had I got to make it work. So I blame myself for not being aggressive down the stretch and putting the ball in the hole.”
Smart, who came off the bench to score 20, was on Kyle Korver in the first half.
“Everybody knows what Kyle can do and the way he can do it,” Smart said of Korver’s shooting. “He can get high real quickly and my job was to, just like with Millsap, make it tough for him. Trail him and just be physical with him and get into his air space.”
Smart was asked if he’s ever given his coach a heart attack with his shot selection, like his back-to-back threes in the fourth.
“I think I gave at least every coach I’ve played for a heart attack at least once, but what player hasn’t,” Smart laughed. “You’re going to mess up, you’re not perfect but its definitely a line between being aggressive and being in control. You got to determine between the two; you can be aggressive while still in control and I did get out of control a little bit tonight, but for the most part I stayed pretty much in control.”