With 20 seconds left in Saturday's disappointing loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Marcus Smart showed why Celtics fans are so excited about his future. Boston was down by five, without the ball, and without much hope of winning the game. Insert Marcus Smart.
The play begins with Shane Larkin trying to hit a streaking Donald Sloan. Smart breaks instinctively before the ball even leaves Larkin's hands. He steals the pass, then finds Crowder before falling out of bounds. The Celtics eventually score on this possession, cutting the lead to 3. But Smart wasn't finished there. On the ensuing inbounds pass, all hell breaks loose when the Nets start screening. Crowder switches with Smart, leaving Smart matched up with Brook Lopez. Faced with this incredible height disparity, Smart darts in front of Lopez to steal the inbounds pass. Once again, he dishes the ball to Crowder on the fast break. Boston doesn't convert this opportunity, but it's due to Smart that they even had a chance to tie the game.
With Smart fully back, the biggest impact will be on defense. Boston is damn good on defense without him, but he makes them even better. Per Basketball Reference, the Celtics are 3.1 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Smart on the floor compared to off. Marcus Smart is relentless on defense. He adds a little more toughness to the mix, but it's more than that. He has the skillset to go with the effort and energy he brings. His athleticism and bigger frame allow him to bust through screens and body up bigger players. His return will give Boston a little more versatility on defense.
Offense isn't really his strong suit, but there's reason to be optimistic. He's driving more this season, which is something everyone was looking for. The sample is obviously small, but he's taking more shots at the rim as well. With these increases, it's not surprising that his free throw attempts are up too. Now he's not converting these shots at a great percentage. His FG% is pretty ugly at 34%. But he's creating chances, which is important. I expect more of those shots to fall as the season progresses. He's shown stretches of excellent three point shooting in the past, so hopefully he can find that stroke again too.
Smart's minute restriction might not be finished yet, but Boston needs whatever they can get from him considering Avery Bradley's injury. The Celtics are pretty thin in the backcourt behind Thomas and Smart. James Young is getting some minutes, but a solitary rebound is all that kept him from notching a dubious "trillion" against the Nets. RJ Hunter has a banged up shoulder, and Terry Rozier has looked pretty raw in his brief time in the NBA. The options aren't too great right now. Boston will have to lean on the trio of Thomas, Smart, and Turner to fill the backcourt minutes. After a couple of disappointing efforts, Smart could be the player to spark the Celtics into another winning streak.