Marcus Smart played an integral role in the Boston Celtics' astonishing victory over the Golden State Warriors by making championship level plays with his opportune offense and lockdown defense. Here's an overview of his performance in the early fourth quarter, as the Celtics built a 10-point cushion:
Speights on Skates
The Celtics' offense generally leans on ball movement, but as soon as Marreese Speights got switched onto Smart, Brad Stevens called from the sidelines for a clear out. Smart took full advantage, as you'd expect The Cobra to do.
Smart's left-to-right crossover into a swooping layup off the glass was too much for the lumbering Speights to handle. Smart is still developing as a ball handler, but showed he can be hard to stop when he's rumbling down the lane with a full head of steam.
Just a few plays later the Celtics ran a pick-and-roll that again got Smart matched up with Speights.
This time Smart got Speights off balance and then stepped back for a clutch three-pointer, which snapped an 0-for-19 slump from behind the arc.
"It felt good to finally get one of those down," Smart told reporters after the game. "The rest just started coming to me. I started making plays, finding open guys, cutters. And my teammates were knocking down shots."
Smart scored five of his seven points in the fourth quarter, to go along with six assists to only two turnovers.
Clamps on Klay
Smart spent the majority of the fourth quarter executing the defensive game plan to perfection by sticking to Klay Thompson like glue. The Warriors went as far to avoid Thompson for stretches of the fourth quarter, simply because Smart wasn't helping off him. But even when they did get the ball to him, Smart was right there.
Smart does an excellent job of quickly getting around the screen and recovering to crowd Thompson's air space and influence a contested mid-range jumper. Thompson was held to just 3 points on 1-of-4 shooting in the final frame because of plays like that.
Smart and Pesky
Smart was also his typical pesky self on defense. That's a guarantee every night though, isn't it?
Here, he almost strips the ball from Harrison Barnes, before sliding his feet quickly to force an offensive foul. The Celtics applied pressure from start to finish, and turnovers like this, even before the ball crossed the half court, are what you need to beat one of the NBA's all-time great scoring offenses.
The Celtics were flying around on defense all night, and the play here by both Jonas Jerebko and Smart perfectly captures that. Jerebko and Smart both deflect the pass, and then Smart scoots over to Stephen Curry, which makes Barnes second-guess his decision in mid-air.
"We were playing a heck of defense on those guys," Smart said after the win, "and making it hard for them as soon as they took the ball out, when they drove. Whatever they did, we made it hard on him."
Normally, the Warriors are the team applying pressure to cause careless mistakes, but last night it was the Celtics taking control.
"We were trying to be into the ball. That's the strength of our team, the athleticism of our guards," Stevens said. "But certainly, like I said, they didn't play their best. But I feel like our guys deserve credit for having something to do with that."
Defensive possessions don't end until the rebound is secured, and that's another area in which Smart excelled last night. Smart is one of the NBA's elite rebounding guards because of his instincts, strength, and the fact he always does "the little things." Smart won't get credited for anything in the box score, but keep an eye on him here:
Smart gets screened and the Celtics switch, but the play isn't over after the shot goes up. Smart gets extremely low leverage to put his butt into Draymond Green's hip, which moves him out of the play, clearing the way for Jared Sullinger to sky over the top for a relatively uncontested rebound.
"Those are the things that make Marcus special," Stevens told reporters after Smart's clutch rebounds against the Suns. "Sometimes those go in a box score, sometimes they don't. But he does them every game. That's why I don't get too caught up in the box score stuff with him. He impacts winning and tonight was a good example of that."
MORE ON MARCUS SMART
MORE ON MARCUS SMART
The reaction to Smart's recent shooting slump and embellishing of contact on defense has caused a ruckus. But you must be patient with Smart. He's 22 and in only the second season of his career. He's in the middle of a poor stretch, but he's shooting 29.5 percent from three in his two years with the Celtics. That obviously isn't good, but it's exactly the same as his percentage in two years at Oklahoma State.
Not a lot has changed in that area. He'll go through slumps and then moments of brilliance, like he did last night against the Warriors, so it really shouldn't come as a surprise. The shortsighted reaction to Smart's struggles reeks of recency bias, because NBA history shows it's too early to rule out future progression.
It's possible that Smart will always be who he is, a subpar 30 percent shooter from three. But it's also possible he'll improve like Kyle Lowry (26 percent after two years), Jason Kidd (31.1 percent), and John Wall (24.3 percent). Considering his vast improvements in only two years as a ball handler, passer, pick-and-roll playmaker, and off-ball defender, I'd put my money on his shooting improving over the years. Just give it time and don't assume what is now will always be.
As for Smart's occasionally careless fouls on defense, keep in mind that NBA officials never give young kids the benefit of the doubt. That's especially true for players that perform as intensely as Smart. Smart's already one of the better, most versatile perimeter defenders in the NBA, and when he's locked in, like he was against the Warriors, he's truly a treat to watch.
The Celtics are far ahead of the schedule with their rebuild, and despite some of his shortcomings, Marcus Smart has played a significant role in their success. Last night's performance against the Warriors is all the evidence you need of that.