When Marcus Smart stepped onto the podium on draft night 2014, there was probably little anticipation of the wild ride that awaited him when the Celtics selected him sixth overall. From a spot deep on the bench behind Rajon Rondo, to integration into the starting lineup, to a swiss-army-knife role around ball handlers like Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, Smart has seen the highs and lows of professional basketball.
Fortunately there’s been an immense level of fortitude within Smart. This inner strength has made him a divisive character among Celtics fans everywhere for his endless drive and knack for being involved in all the minor, hustle plays that add up to a significant impact over the course of 20-25 minutes per game. The shot selection and inability to make jumpers at a consistent clip infuriates at times, but unquestioned is his remarkable defensive presence, confidence, and versatility. That combined with his directed aggression has advanced projections loving his future, which is an excellent sign as the team looks to make something of their relatively young core. Further, one of Boston’s obvious remaining needs is another ball handler to step up in the place of the departed Turner.
We all love peering into the future. This looks like an extremely competitive and likable team formulating for the fall, but as the summer draws on let’s take a look back on the special dynamic that was “smart plays” this past season. There were many, from an extra effort to save a ball going out of bounds to tip-ins and timely positioning. These are plays that won’t make a highlight tape but are the embodiment of Smart’s game and a microcosm of the team.
Here’s the ten best occurrences of Smart going berserk last season:
10. The “Rondo.” March 3 vs. Portland
The comparison to Rondo was immediately made by Mike Gorman from a safe enough distance past the guard’s departure to not leave a sour taste in Cs fan’s mouths. Flashiness hasn’t been Smart’s forte, as he hasn’t received a brunt of ball time through his first two seasons, but on the drive he has shown to be effective, even if not completely on balance.
9. Team work (with a fist). February 22 at Denver
Up double-digits late against the Nuggets, the Celtics were still cruising with an emphasis on defense, and Smart of course was right in the thick of it. In one of the best defensive plays and examples of “Celtics hustle” on the season, Turner poked the ball loose, Smart slipped between two Denver players and punched the ball towards their basket. E.T. then sprinted full speed to tip it back in towards Avery Bradley, who scored an easy two points. Watch it in its full (grainy) beauty over and over again.
8. The predator. January 5 at Brooklyn
Smart was a dream for the people upstairs who formulate the hype videos for introductions at the TD Garden. This was one that got fairly consistent play all season and will live in Donald Sloan’s nightmares forever, if he wasn’t already asleep while walking up the court with the ball rolling beside him. It’s easy to love Smart because he’s so reminiscent of Tony Allen defensively, with more of an offensive upside. That’s the only other player that would theoretically dive for a ball on a “dog-walk” like this. Nevertheless the Nets got the last laugh and beat Boston twice last year, which was twice too many.
7. “Air time.” February 27 vs. Miami
Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson, and to a lesser degree Dwyane Wade were all in position to haul in a Turner miss, but instead Smart made every effort that those three combined failed to make. This is just one example of the flying floater that became a Smart signature play (in fact there’s one coming up later in the list that was far more aggressive). He may not have the big-man height necessary for tip-ins but when you can fly that negates the difference. Side note: look at Tyler Zeller’s rebounding form with the flailing arm, no wonder he only pulled in three a game.
6. “Pick 6.” February 23 at Minnesota
This may have been the most vine-worthy “Smart Play of the Night” all season, and if it was 2012 the joke would be wide-open to say that 36 may be in the Patriots’ defensive backfield next year, but they actually look solid in that department now. Anyways, to continue the analogy anyways: with Zach LaVine playing the role of Russell Wilson and Smart staring as Malcolm Butler, the latter stole a two-handed fireball and went the extra mile to score at the hoop. Except one did it in the final seconds of the Super Bowl and the other did it in what ended up being a loss to the lowly Wolves. Forget it.
5. “Pain leads to points.” November 5 vs. San Antonio
The play that started it all. It certainly wasn’t the first extraordinary hustle play of Smart’s career, but it did fire off the string of puns online that adopted it into this series here. Even in a loss this one will probably be remembered for years. With Smart reaching serious heights on flying tip-ins, he also made sure to dent the floor several times a night. After Tim Duncan lost the ball with Amir Johnson in his face and Smart tipped it out, Tony Parker presumably decided that he’s too old for this as Smart roared up the court and dove on a ball with the vision to dish it to Jae Crowder immediately chasing from behind. The best part about these Smart plays is how often they ended in the opposite team’s side of the court. As offensively challenged as he may be, there’s no shortage of easy buckets created by Smart. Dive on young man.
4. “Secret Weapon.” April 24 vs. Atlanta
Chills alert: they’ll probably reappear after watching this video. This is actually a sequence within Game 4 of the Atlanta series instead of a single “Smart play”, but who cares. If you wanted to showcase what Smart is all about to someone under a rock who has never watched the NBA, this is the go-to video. Brad Stevens, with Paul Millsap on his way to shredding the net with so many buckets inside and out, got crazy and believed in his point guard to shut down one of the best big men in the NBA. In typical Stevens fashion, guess what, it worked. With his chest in Millap’s body every time the Hawks expectedly tossed him the rock, Smart gave him no room to even slip a breath in before unleashing a shot, shutting down a player four inches taller than him. Once Stevens made the adjustment Millsap shot 3 for 7 with six points over the final 13 or so minutes of a game in which he scored 45. The series looked over in Boston’s favor with the groundbreaking, series-tying win. Instead it was the Celtics’ last victory of 2016.
3. “The Almost Miracle.” April 16 vs. Atlanta
This play got lost in what a furious, intense, and dramatic series of highs and lows the first round would become for Boston, but Marcus Smart nearly performed the greatest play in sports history to end game one. The fact that it was a millisecond too late and didn’t go in probably should exempt it from this list and make it a backstory instead of a headline, but it was absolutely ridiculous to think about. The Cs led 51-34 at the half before the Hawks stormed back following Bradley’s hamstring injury that knocked him out for the series. Atlanta eventually took control and won, but not before Boston pulled off their typical late game theatrics. Thomas hit a quick layup after a few free throws, Crowder drilled a three after Thomas grabbed his own miss, and then I.T. hit a three to pull within one point after a pair of free throws. The only issues were that there were 0.4 seconds left and that the Hawks had the ball off a timeout. Choosing to advance the ball, Kent Bazemore fell asleep tossing the inbounds in to a tightly covered Al Horford and something unspeakable happened. Smart tipped the pass in mid-air with one hand across the entire court right as the buzzer sounded and it hit the back-board, almost careening into the basket. It may have been a moot point, but Smart putting the idea of the greatest play in sports history in fan’s heads shows how special of a play-maker he is.
2. “Box him out!” December 30 vs. Lakers
The plus to being a guard on the perimeter of the court is that if you make the extra effort to get to the bucket on a shot, you probably aren’t getting boxed out. That was the case on the second Smart put-back of the list, except this one was so uncontested he got all the way up for an absurd dunk with Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell sadly watching helplessly. Watching this also made me think: maybe the reason Smart played alongside Turner so much was all those soft mid-range misses available for him to bury back. It’s also still remarkable to imagine how much better of a rebounder Smart is over Zeller (not seen this time of year).
1. “Breakout.” April 24 vs. Atlanta
Cheated again. More than one play here and back to Game 4 vs. Atlanta (one of the best live games I’ve ever seen). This is crucial because what was witnessed from Smart in this game could represent a vision towards his enormous future at the center of the next great Celtics team. Between dishing out well-timed passes, creating for teammates on the ball, nailing threes, or bruising to the basket Smart did everything in this game that flashes his possible potential to become a NBA star. It was the best game of his two year career in the enormous overtime win that tied the series. The main sequence in mention was the final nine minutes of the fourth quarter, where Smart basically saw red, and a fearlessness took over that allowed him to go on a scoring frenzy inside and out. He didn’t forget defense either, stripping Millsap immediately after his biggest three-pointer of the night. The streak instilled so much confidence in him from Stevens that the ball was in his hands throughout overtime. Here’s to more “Smart plays” and ball time for the 22-year-old in 2016-17. With Turner gone, his time has come.