MassLive’s Jay King coined the phrase “power point guard” when describing Marcus Smart. Brad Stevens calls him Boston’s “sixth starter.” After Smart’s season-high 22 points and 6 assists in a spot start on Saturday night, Isaiah Thomas called him a “special player” and "when he has the full package, he's a tough guard to handle. When he plays like that, I bet we win 100 percent of the time, because he puts so much pressure on the [opposing defense] when he's making his shots and then, on the defensive end, he's a monster."
ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg detailed Smart’s improved shot selection and percentages, but it’s been his steady hand as either a primary ball handler alongside IT4 or running the second unit that has helped the Celtics on their current 10-2 stretch. Per nbawowy.com, the Celtics have a 109.2 OffRtg with Smart on the floor without Thomas; the Celtics as a whole are averaging 108.3. Stevens gushes about all the unheralded small winning plays that Smart makes, but he’s made major strides as a point guard and maybe more impressively, he’s done it in his own unique way by incorporating his bully ball mentality into the finesse art of managing an offense.
The dichotomy between Thomas’ and Smart’s styles couldn’t be more stark. Thomas is a water bug off the dribble. Where Thomas might zip past his defender with only a crevice to fit in, Smart would rather bang and bump his way to a bucket. Smart plays point like he defends: physical, in your face, and aggressive. He’s an MMA fighter that would rather grapple in a phone booth than dance around the Octagon. Most players value space. Space to get a shot off or space to generate speed to get past somebody to create even more space. Not Smart. Smart prefers to keep his enemies closer.
Most guards would use a pick to create separation, but like a wrestler in referee’s position, Smart will often slow down just to get his defender on his back and use his body to shield him from the ball. It’s effective because not only is he engaging the big, but he keeps his defender from helping on the pick setter. It’s like he’s setting another screen for the roller while maintaining his dribble. He’s mastered the pocket pass and lob to the roller; if he continues to develop his floater, he’ll be even more dangerous in the pick-and-roll.
Smart’s become quite a nifty passer, too. It’s one thing to be able to overpower smaller defenders in the paint; it’s another to thread a needle in traffic. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that Smart is Boston’s best passer and dare I say has shades of Rajon Rondo’s vision and creativity in his point guard game. There are passing lanes and angles that only they see and the confidence to use them. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a respectable 2.34.
In the post, he reminds me a lot of Andre Miller. Neither are particularly tall guards, but they’re strong and calm on the block. They’re enough of an offensive threat that they draw enough attention so they can read offenses and make the right pass. That’s an underrated skill for a point guard. It gives a team the added dimension of playing inside out and shifts the focus of the defense. Instead of facing out towards the attack of the offense, some of the defenders have to look back and away from the arc. That opens up the perimeter where the Celtics have been on fire.
With Boston’s defensive rebounding issues, guards have had to pitch in on the glass and that’s killed the Celtics’ transition game, but that hasn’t stopped Marcus Smart from connecting on a few touchdown passes from the back court. This isn’t necessarily a big part of being a point guard, but it just speaks to Smart’s vision and feel for the game.
His development as a playmaker could be vital if the Celtics want to make any noise in the playoffs. Over the past two post seasons, the Cavaliers and Hawks game planned to take the ball out of Isaiah Thomas’ hands and force another Celtic to generate offense. The addition of Al Horford will help, but Smart supplanting Evan Turner’s role as the team's go to backup ball handler will be just as important. In Boston’s two wins against the Hawks last April, he was a combined +31 in Games 3 and 4. Much of that was due to his defensive impact, but now he brings the added dimension as a reliable distributor who can run pick-and-roll and post up. Playoff basketball is won in the half court. The game slows down and is much more of a grind. Smart's style will fit in perfectly this spring.
Furthermore, Smart's growth as a point guard could also play into any future transactions between now and the deadline and later this summer in free agency. With guard depth on the roster and an upcoming draft guard heavy at the top, knowing Smart can run point gives Ainge a potential foundation piece moving forward. But for now, Boston will focus on the task in hand: taking down Toronto on Tuesday. The Celtics have closed the gap on the Atlantic Division leaders and are looking to wrestle away the #2 seed from the Raptors and get them on their back, Marcus Smart-style.