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Even In Short Stints, Marcus Smart Will Provide Much-Needed Boost For Celtics Defense

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

Update, 5 p.m.: Marcus Smart will officially be available for Celtics in Game 4 after being cleared to play.

BOSTON (CBS) -- After the Milwaukee Bucks had their way offensively in Games 2 and 3, taking a 2-1 series lead over Boston, the Celtics could certainly use a boost defensively.

Marcus Smart may be back on the floor to provide just that in Monday night's Game 4. The Celtics' defensive heartbeat has been upgraded to questionable for the game after four weeks of rehabbing an oblique tear he suffered just ahead of the postseason. Smart was initially ruled out for 4-6 weeks, but no one is surprised he's now flirting with a return on the shorter end on that timetable.

Smart was cleared for contact over the weekend and participated in 3-on-3 drills, literally trying to knock off some rust by taking as many bumps and hits as he could. He fought through screens and absorbed all sorts of contact, and felt good on Sunday morning. Ultimately, it will boil down to how Smart feels on Monday. Because if Marcus Smart can't play like Marcus Smart, he knows he can't make his usual impact on the team.

"If I'm able to play I doubt there would be moves I can't make," he said confidently on Sunday. "So we'll see. Hopefully, if I'm able to play, they don't tell me, 'All right, there are these restrictions.' Hopefully they'll just let me go play."

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said Smart will be limited to quick 4-5 minute stints if he's able to play on Monday. But even quick bursts of the havoc Smart usually unleashes should give the Celtics defense a much-needed boost.

Milwaukee's offense has exploded for 123 points in each of the last two games, with Boston's defense allowing 107 points per 100 possessions (way up from their 101.3 average in the regular season). Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to do whatever he wanted over the last two games, scoring 29 and 32 points, respectively, while reaching the charity stripe 40 times. Smart himself isn't going to stop Giannis, but Boston would gladly welcome his bulldog mentality back to help the cause. If Smart can withstand the brunt of a Antetokounmpo drive, the Celtics may even draw a charge or two on his drives to the basket.

But Smart's biggest impact would come against Khris Middleton, who has been killing the Celtics from downtown this series. Middleton is hitting 65 percent of his three-point attempts against Boston, going 13 of 20. Smart is Boston's best perimeter defender, and if he can't take chargers like he did before the oblique injury, he should be able to make life a little more difficult for Middleton and Milwaukee's other shooters along the three-point line.

Smart missed the first four games of Boston's first-round series against the Bucks last year with a torn ligament in his thumb, but returned in Game 5 to help them win two of the final three games and take the series. It took him only a few minutes after checking to hit the floor and make his presence known.

There are a lot more questions and concerns with his oblique injury, but just having Smart on the floor, being a menace to Milwaukee's offensive gameplan, will give the Celtics a big boost on the defensive end.

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