BOSTON -- After a nine-assist performance in the Boston Celtics' 99-85 win over the New York Knicks, it's clear that Marcus Smart has unlocked the paint by learning how to change speeds.
Smart is manipulating defenders by "putting them in jail." This means that in the pick-and-roll, Smart is using calculated hesitation moves to put the defender into a helpless position, planted on his back.
Here's an example from Thursday:
Smart dribbles left to put Jose Calderon into an off-balance position, then David Lee re-screens, allowing Smart to accelerate back to his right. While Smart uses his off-hand to shield Calderon from making a play on the ball, he purposefully drives baseline and makes an excellent pass to a cutting Tyler Zeller.
"Just trying to keep the defender on my back," Smart said when asked about what he's doing differently now. "I'm too strong to not be able to get into the paint when I want to. I'm just trying to focus on getting in the lane and making plays for others."
Smart was like a bulldozer at Oklahoma State, capable of drawing fouls at will due to his forceful straight-line drives. So he never really had to develop change-of-pace hesitation moves, until he got to the NBA where his strength alone couldn't get it done.
Early last season, Smart went 100-miles-per-hour in the pick-and-roll. That style led to a lot of wild shots or passes, much to the chagrin of Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. But that was all part of the learning process. And now, by slowing down, Smart is much better able to get into the paint.
Here, Smart "snakes" in the pick-and-roll to get to the middle of the floor, stays patient and draws the attention of three defenders. This opens the space necessary for Jared Sullinger to take an uncontested jumper.
Stevens recognized Smart's progression after the game.
"He's always been able to see the floor; that's never been an issue with him," Stevens said. "He's always understood the game. But getting used to the NBA game, and getting used to the small spaces you have to work through to get passes, that's where he's gotten a little bit better."
Stevens added that the bigs did a good job of helping Smart by rim running. A few of Smart's assists came in transition, including this beauty to David Lee.
Smart lasers a bounce pass through three Knicks defenders, allowing Lee to easily shift into a layup.
"He's a better passer than I thought he was," Lee said before the game. "I kind of saw him more in college and saw him as more of an off-guard guy. But as a point he's proven a lot to me, so we got a lot of guys that are very steady offensively. He's one of them."
Smart has already developed the reputation of a scrappy, lockdown perimeter defender. But maybe after his sophomore season, the NBA will know Marcus Smart as an up-and-coming playmaker in the pick-and-roll.