Watching Marcus Smart play D is the best reason to watch Boston for the rest of the season -- and it might not be close. A terror.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 20, 2015
Strong words, but we've heard this before. This summer, Smart impressed at USA Basketball's Vegas tune-up before the World Cup going up against Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving. We've seen glimpses of his defensive intensity with opposing players showing him respect (Kevin Garnett) or body slamming him to the floor (DeMarcus Cousins). He's still getting used to the NBA's size and speed on offense, but on the other side of the ball, he's already an elite defender.
When we talk about good defense, we're not limiting it to the ball-hawking skills of Avery Bradley (see above). In fact, if you look at Smart's Synergy stats, they're not overly impressive. Because the Celtics lack a intimidating shot blocker, opposing teams are fond of putting them in pick-and-roll situations. According to Synergy Sports, Smart ranks 11th as a P&R ball handler defender (with at least 100 possessions defended), giving up 0.67 points per possession. What makes Smart a tough defensive player is that in a PnR, he rarely goes under the pick and gives up the jump shot. According to Synergy, he's either going over the pick or into the pick 87% of the time. By comparison, other point guard pick-and-roll defenders Mario Chalmers is at 72% and Jeff Teague is at 76.2%. It's a testament to Smart's ability to fight through picks and still contest shots.
However, the numbers don't tell the entire story. Against the Clippers on MLK Day, Smart primarily defended off-the-ball on Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick and put his defensive prowess on display.
He'd get unfairly whistled for a blocking foul here, but this play shows Smart's ability to an offense and give up his body. After Tayshaun Prince gets caught on a Glen Davis pick, Smart leaves Austin Rivers and cuts off the driving lane from Crawford.
This is Smart at his best. After Redick down screens for Blake Griffin, Smart chips Griffin at the free throw line. It's such a subtle thing, but it gives Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Bass just enough time to recover. Because of Smart's size, he can effectively disrupt the rhythm of an offense by simply getting in the way of a cut or a dive. You see this a lot when he's on the weak side of a offensive play and he has to chip a rolling big man in the paint.
After showing on Griffin, he quickly recovers on the potential Redick spot up on the sideline and and doesn't get caught up on the re-screen from Griffin.
Here's another great example of Smart's precision footwork on defense. He does over commit a bit on jumping out on the pick and icing the action to the sideline, but he's so quick to recover that Redick can't take advantage of his initial mistake.
When Griffin decides to try and drive, he chips in enough to disrupt Griffin's rhythm and forces him into a late shot clock long range 2. Statistically, that won't show up in the box score and Bass will probably get credit for Griffin's miss, but that's all Smart.
The hand off screen can be the most difficult play to defend, but Smart doesn't waste any movement. Watch as he readies himself for the down screen from Dahntay Jones and how nimble he is around the Big Baby hand off. In three quick steps, he's contending Crawford's jumper.
Offensively, his shot has started falling, especially from beyond the arc at a 43% clip in January, and we're beginning to see him penetrate and kick more as a point guard. His evolution offensively over the next forty-three games will be under focus as the team evaluates him as a potential playmaker going forward, but his defense will never be in question.