The Boston Celtics will start the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat without two starters after announcing that Marcus Smart and Al Horford will be out for Game 1 on Tuesday night. Smart was already listed as questionable after suffering a mid-foot sprain in Sunday’s Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the previous round, so there was always a 50-50 chance that he would be able to suit up. Horford will be sidelined after being placed in the league’s COVID health and safety protocols.
Smart underwent an MRI on Monday on his right foot and the imaging returned clean, per ESPN, which is encouraging news for the Celtics in the long term. But being without the defensive stalwart isn’t an ideal place to be in right now.
Smart, who was named the NBA‘s Defensive Player of the Year a few weeks ago, was integral to Boston’s win over the Bucks in the second round of the playoffs. In Game 6, he put up 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while being a pest defensively to help extend the series for the Celtics. He followed that up with an 11-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound performance in Game 7, and finished the game a plus-18. Smart’s defense is the glue that helps keep Boston’s defense together, and though he doesn’t put up monster numbers on offense, his passing is a necessity for the Celtics. He helps keep the ball moving if Boston gets too stagnant, and does a great job of putting his teammates in a position to get a good look. His 39.4 percent mark from 3-point range was also an additional weapon the Celtics used against the Bucks.
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Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Tuesday at shootaround that Smart tested out the foot, but some soreness persisted.
“Yeah he’s still pretty sore,” Udoka said. “He tested out a little bit here and we’re hoping he’s feeling better, but there’s some soreness here, some swelling still, and we’ll monitor him throughout the day, get some treatment, and he’ll still be listed as questionable.”
Being without Smart was always a possibility for the Celtics, but the announcement of Horford being sidelined due to health and safety protocols is a punch to the gut for Boston. Those two guys are arguably the most important to Boston’s defense, and Horford’s offensive production was key in Boston’s Game 4 win on the road against the Bucks in the second round.
ESPN reports that Boston is also prepared to be without Horford for Thursday’s Game 2 in Miami if the big man can’t clear protocols in time.
With those two key players out, it will put more responsibility on the shoulders of guys like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and others to step up defensively.