Marcus Smart hits stride as Boston's playmaker in 99-85 win over Knicks

Isaiah Thomas (leg) and Kelly Olynyk (rest) sat out Thursday's preseason game against the Knicks. Their absences opening up important opportunities for Marcus Smart and especially Jared Sullinger to assert themselves on the offensive end. On call, their activity on the court set the stage for important runs in every quarter that helped the Celtics cruise to a 99-85 win.

Tyler Zeller led the way early, finishing with 15 points on 5-11 shooting; while Smart added 7 points and 9 assists. Sullinger had a 16 point, 8 rebound, and 6 assist performance; using his size to power the team through some big moments.

The first began with Jae Crowder shadowing Carmelo Anthony and Zeller going to town on the Knicks interior with intense quickness. Zeller's prowess for finding space in the post helped Boston lead by 19 at one point in the first half.

More importantly Brad Stevens gave Smart the keys to the offense, pushing Evan Turner aside, where the hopeful centerpiece flourished. Recording seven assists in the first fifteen minutes; Smart set up successful plays, got to the rim for finesse finishes, and looked comfortable with the extra ball time he didn't see often last year.

Smart also led a ruthless defensive effort, Avery Bradley and Crowder put constant pressure on the Knicks' perimeter shooters while the team rotated methodically to protect the rim. Amir Johnson's impact inside was evident early with a monster block on Anthony.

What shined brightest was Smart's assertiveness as a two-way leader, calling out assignments on defensive transitions and setting a tone with his energy.

Sullinger, playing for a spot in the front court rotation, started sluggish before finding comfort planting his butt right beneath the basket. The difference was immediate with New York's front court unable to keep a consistent handle on his size. Sullinger dominated with 10 straight points in the second quarter to put Boston up 55-43 at the half.

In the third, shots started flying. Knicks had nailed seven three-pointers in the game by the end of the frame and managed to draw within four several times behind the steady shooting hand of Jose Calderon (6-11, 17 points). Boston stayed ahead through the threat behind a smooth shooting performance from Crowder (4-6, 13 points) and a continued burst of activity from Smart.

Celtics' hustle was on display with the team holding a significant rebounding edge (54-45) throughout the game while grabbing a massive amount of the loose balls. This effort, spearheaded by Smart, ended painfully for Bradley. Midway through the third on a dive into the stands the guard banged his leg and exited for the night with a right shin bruise.

Stevens, on his 39th birthday, once again opted to give the back end of the roster a shot into the fourth with RJ Hunter, Jordan Mickey, James Young, and Terry Rozier joining Jonas Jerebko against New York's starters. The following sequence wasn't pretty with Mickey botching several fast break attempts while the Knicks responded with several bricks of their own.

Stevens would opt to allow Sullinger to help close the game with the young guys and it paid off. The big man splashed two straight buckets before delivering two crucial set-ups for Rozier three-pointers to put Boston up 10 again. The energy of Sullinger ended up providing in the second and fourth quarters sparked runs that spoke volumes in this very important game for him personally.

From there it was all Celtics, wrapping up a spectacular team win to push them to 5-1 on the preseason.

Follow Bobby Manning on Twitter @RealBobManning

Photo Credit: AP/Charles Krupa