NBA — Celtics bench lifts Boston over visiting Timberwolves

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Despite Karl-Anthony Towns’ fourth 20-20 game of his career, the Timberwolves fall to the Celtics, who come out on top behind Kyrie Irving’s 16 points, eight assists and nine rebounds in a 91-84 victory.

BOSTON — Marcus Smart’s reputation suggests a player who’s a defensive bulldog but an offensive liability. There are many who see only his woeful career shooting numbers and dismiss him as a player capable of impacting the game on only one end of the floor.

And while Smart’s on/off splits revealed a negative differential in offensive rating the past two seasons, a new trend has emerged this season: The Boston Celtics are, maybe surprisingly, a better offensive team when Smart is on the floor.

Smart didn’t just put up a team-high 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting on Friday night, he gave a lifeless Celtics team an unexpected offensive jolt when it had previously been colder than the single-digit temperatures outside TD Garden.

Combined with Kyrie Irving flirting with a triple-double (16 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) and 14 points from fellow bench-mobber Terry Rozier, Smart and the Celtics rallied for a 91-84 triumph over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Sometimes when we’re struggling, I think the ball is going to find energy,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And Marcus Smart has energy. He plays that way and he plays with a great chip. … He’s playing at a good level. We need him to continue to do so.

“Obviously, he’s a really important part of our team.”

Inserted with just less than five minutes to play in the third quarter — and right after the Celtics, who had been shooting 33 percent to that point, were whistled for a mind-numbing 24-second violation after over-passing the ball around the perimeter — Smart played the next 12 minutes of game action and the Celtics outscored the Timberwolves by 16 in that span.

Marcus Smart sparked the Boston Celtics off the bench on both ends of the floor. Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty

Smart scored eight of Boston’s 37 points in a span in which the team shot 57.7 percent from the field. In typical Smart fashion, he was everywhere. He relentlessly crashed the glass (grabbing two offensive rebounds) and made sure the ball kept moving to the open man. Even when Smart went to the bench with Boston up 85-76 with little more than four minutes to go, Stevens gave him just a short break before putting him right back on the floor to help Boston seal the win.

Smart finished with a game-high plus-minus of plus-17.

This season, the Celtics own an offensive rating of 106.7 when Smart is on the court. That number dives to 102.9 when he’s on the bench. This seems to defy logic when you consider that Smart himself is a career 35.5 percent shooter and is shooting just 34 percent overall this season.

In his past two games, Smart is shooting 51.9 percent from the field and averaging 16.5 points, continuing an upward trend from late December.

But even when he’s not providing offense, Smart typically makes good things happen with his energy.

“That’s my job, to bring energy off the bench and create for others and be the playmaker I am,” Smart said. “When I get in the game I just try to create a lot of chaos and get us to running the floor.”

Smart’s efforts helped the Celtics spoil a monster night from Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, who put up 25 points and 23 rebounds over 42 minutes. Despite Towns’ big night, Boston outscored Minnesota 50-24 in the paint.

Both teams shot the ball poorly in the first half, combining to shoot 36 percent overall. Smart noted after the game how Stevens told Celtics players, “that we put up enough bricks to build a house tonight.”

Dad jokes aside, the Celtics were able to cut down the amount of bricks over the final 16 minutes. Rozier, who scored a team-high 20 points off the bench in Boston’s win over Cleveland on Wednesday, has paired with Smart to really impact Boston’s previously inconsistent second unit.

“They really play extremely well together, especially defensively,” Irving said of Smart and Rozier. “Now, offensively, they’re just making plays, for not only each other, but other guys on the floor. Then their pace picks up when they come in and they change the flow of the game. That’s just a true testament of professionals in this league, able to come in and know their roles. … I just really appreciate having them as teammates.”

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After three consecutive missed 3-point shots, Terry Rozier drills an open 3-pointer to get the crowd fired up.

Al Horford limped off the court late in the first half but returned with a protective sleeve and helped Boston rally from as much as seven down in the second half.

The Celtics (32-10) have now won five straight and have a 2½-game lead over their nearest Eastern Conference competition (Toronto, 27-10 after Friday night).

Boston plays the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday in Brooklyn and then its schedule eases a bit as the team travels to London for a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

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