BOSTON – With the eyes of a cobra, he slithered through the lane.
The predators closed in on him, trapped in the middle of the killing field. Death was imminent. Failure was certain.
Then Marcus Smart struck. Not with a jumper or a floater or a run at the rim, but with a crisp pass to the weak side corner. Jae Crowder caught the ball on his hip, pulled up and fired away, singeing the net on its way through.
There’s been a seismic shift in the way the Cobra functions with the ball this season, progressively improving as the season drags on. Flashes of pick-and-roll capability peeked out from under the wreckage of his train wreck shooting last season. But in 2017, Smart has rapidly emerged as the best distributor on a team that features Isaiah Thomas in a historic offensive season.
Smart ranks as the most efficient passer in the NBA out of the pick-and-roll per Synergy at 1.333 points per possession, followed by Deron Williams, Thomas, Tony Parker and LeBron James. He has made the third year leap many top point guards experience, going from learning how to get to the rim to learning how to feel out defenses and work laterally. It’s the same jump Rajon Rondo made in 2009, when he went from a good driver on kick-outs to a dagger-wielding hitman.
“I think Marcus has gotten a pretty good understanding of the different passing reads out of the pick and roll over his first two-and-a-half-years,” coach Stevens said. “I think that he’s always had a good vision and a good feel for the game. He’s very Smart. So it’s not a huge surprise that he’s become a very good passer out of the pick-and-roll.”
Marcus was charged with the task of filling Evan Turner’s vacant role: secondary ball handler to Isaiah. Stevens has put him back in the second unit in favor of Jaylen Brown, giving him a chance to run pick-and-roll against second unit defenses. This contributes to his phenomenal efficiency stats as a passer. But it serves a dress rehearsal for sharing the rock with Isaiah in the crunch time in the near future, something that is happening more frequently by the day.
“I’m just seeing my bigs and other guys, hands ready and in the right spots to shoot the ball and score it,” Smart told me after the win over Orlando. “So I did my job creating and drawing two [defenders], so I just gotta get those guys the ball.”
So the key is deeper penetration. Like most second-year guards, Smart would try to drive hard to the rim and hope he gets an opening to put up a floater at some point in the drive path. But now that his dribbling skills are dramatically improved, he has more calm and presence in tight spaces. This has him dribbling into trouble on purpose to force a double team and find those guys.
Smart credits his improved ballhandler vision and awareness as crucial to his dribble penetration.
“That causes me actually getting deeper in the paint,” he told me. “Last year I would stop a little bit earlier and that didn’t really force the defense to help. This year I’m getting deeper in the paint and the defense has to play me.”
On Friday, the second unit matchups were a beta test for Smart’s future running the point. Stevens kept him out there with Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller together, a matchup that had surprisingly effective results against a Magic defense that looks lost in translation and transition. It led to him tying a career-high with 11 assists and matching the number on his back with a massive +36 differential.
The first thing Smart looks for is matchup confusion in transition. When he came down early while the Magic were still turning on their defensive retreat, he ended up with Bismack Biyombo isolated on the wing. Mario Hezonja, who spent most of the night trying to play flag football with Kelly Olynyk, mistakenly shuffled out of the play. When Damjan Rudez got lost trying to figure out assignments, Zeller rolls to the basket and Smart finds him easily.
Even last year, Smart would have picked the ball up and tried to get it around Biyombo. But his handles have improved to the point that he can subtly bounce a touch pass to lead Zeller perfectly, executing so quickly that Biyombo is caught completely off guard.
In the half court, before he even needed to utilize dribble penetration, the Celtics picked apart the Magic’s disjointed defensive units. Pick-and-roll defense requires an action by the two assigned defenders, but relies on a third help defender as a safety net under the play to swallow up loose cutters. Coach Frank Vogel may need more time to instill that coordination into his defense, as it was an aberration in their 30-point loss Friday.
Rudez, Hezonja and Biyombo were the focal point of a series of failures handling screens, especially on switches. The failure starts with Biyombo, who as the center is supposed to be the safety net in the paint. Yet time and again, he found himself stuck in the weak-side no man’s land, shading Tyler Zeller behind the three-point line.
Tyler Zeller has never hit a three in his career.
Even though Zeller was having a great start, Biyombo should have been sagging into the strong side paint to clean up any issues handling the screen. But when Olynyk caught Hezonja ball watching, he darted for the hole and Smart whipped a pinpoint lead pass to hit him in stride.
This partnership has helped Olynyk -- who hit all seven field goals Friday – punch well above his class as a roll man in the P&R. Olynyk ranks third in the league in roll man efficiency at 1.314 ppp, trailing just historically dominant roll men DeAndre Jordan (1.53 ppp) and Rudy Gobert (1.418 ppp) per Synergy.
They have the basic side pick-and-pop down, a go-to against teams that ice the screen instead of switching, or just don’t read the scouting report.
On this Olynyk three, Hezonja ices the screen and keeps Smart pressured to the sideline with Biyombo underneath. But Biyombo is too slow to actually pressure Smart into the corner defender and Smart throws a perfect behind the back pass out of the situation anyway. DJ Augustin is hours late to his help rotation, Biyombo is way too late to close out in time and it’s a walk in the park for Olynyk. This is his bread and butter.
“[Smart’s] a good player,” Biyombo told me. “Gotta respect that and the respect goes both ways. But they won the game and give them credit and keep it moving.”
Smart and Olynyk can run the 1-5 high pick-and-roll effectively too when the defense switches. Hezonja got victimized by several switches onto Olynyk, who would loop around him like he was on a merry-go-round.
When Olynyk sets the cross screen, Hezonja lets him pass in a confused attempt to trap Smart with Biyombo. Olynyk has a free roll to the hoop as Rudez has no idea what is going on and Smart throws yet another perfect pass through traffic.
“We were more trying to trap him or you either want to switch on him,” Biyombo told me. “This is the NBA. Players are going to have nights like that and you just gotta roll with it and see what adjustment the coach is making and play from there.”
When teams start to respect Smart’s prowess as a passer more and more, he should find even more space to operate and get deeper into the paint. This may help fix a glaring weakness, which is just overall scoring.
He ironically ranks as the second least efficient scorer as a pick-and-roll ballhandler at 0.583 ppp per Synergy. He is only ahead of rookie Brandon Ingram on a plummeting Lakers squad and the Brooklyn Nets’ extremely raw prospect Isaiah Whitehead.
Smart has improved at finding baskets when working the baseline, but his proficient distributing out of the P&R is a crutch for not being able to pull up when he finds space, or score in the trees like Thomas has utterly mastered.
It’s the barrier he’ll need to cross to raise his career trajectory to flawed starter to all-star. The stars are there, but they are a few career objectives away from aligning.
Until then, there’s the Smart to Olynyk connection.