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Celtics make “Smart” adjustment

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Marcus Smart as a primary ball handler paid off.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

While most of the focus was on Brad Stevens inserting Gerald Green into the starting lineup in place of Amir Johnson, he made another subtle change as well. This one was more strategy based than personnel based. Or, at the very least, it was strategy based because of the personnel.

In order to keep Marcus Smart on the floor and take advantage of his game changing defense, the Celtics had to figure out a way to keep him from being a negative on offense. For large chunks of the year, especially when paired with Isaiah Thomas or Terry Rozier, Smart has played off the ball. In the regular season, Boston could get away with this because teams play a scheme on defense in the regular season that is largely consistent from game to game. In the playoffs, where you know you are going to see the same team for a minimum of four consecutive games, defensive game plans are often built around the personnel a team is facing. This makes the offense have to adjust from game to game, as well as in game. And then the defense has to adjust, creating the chess match that makes the postseason so fascinating.

In Games 1 and 2, Boston played Smart largely off the ball, as he has for lots of the year. Game 1 was dominated by Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford doing most of the ball handling, while Smart would space out to the arc. In Game 2, things got even worse. Rozier played after not playing in Game 1 and handled it a lot off the bench. Thomas and Horford still handled the lion share of the touches, mixed in with Jae Crowder. In 27 minutes off the bench, Smart recorded two assists, while the Bulls repeatedly dropped way off him. This clogged up the paint and allowed them to stick to shooters on the opposite side of the floor. Overall, the offense was a disaster and the Celtics were in a world of trouble heading to Chicago down 0-2.

In Game 3, with the season on the line, Stevens made a subtle adjustment. When Smart was on the floor, he was the primary ball handler. He ran the pick and roll actions. As you can see below, when he has the ball in his hands, the defense has to honor him.

Because Smart isn’t afraid to put his head down and go to the hoop, he attracts the attention of two defenders. This frees up his teammates for open looks. The biggest improvement in Smart’s game from last year to his year has been his pick and roll ball handling. He’s now equally adept at finding the roll man or shooters, when the defenders stick with him.

In the below compilation (provided by our guy Bill Sy!), you can see further proof of Smart’s effectiveness with the ball in his hands.

In the same game, there were a few examples of Smart off the ball. In each clip below, you can see the defender dropping off Smart to help on someone else.

Zipser gives Smart what amounts to a mile of space in the NBA, showing him no respect as a shooter and preferring to help on Rozier on the cut.

On a semi-break, Zipser stops the ball as all defenders are taught, but keeps no balance because he doesn’t care about Smart spacing to the corner.

This one is the most egregious of all. Jerian Grant completely leaves Smart alone on the baseline to give help to the strong-side corner. He then comes back, but the Bulls gladly give Smart the short baseline jumper with only a token contest from Smart.

When Smart is functioning as a spot up shooter, his defender is often in the rebounding mix or flat out leaking out on offense early. Sure, Smart might steal the occasional offensive rebound, but that is a chance the defense will gladly take.

For one game, at least, everything changed. Stevens gave Smart the ball and let him run the show. Overall, it was a seemingly minor adjustment, but one that paid off big time. It also helped Rozier get going in Game 3 as a shooter and allowed Thomas and Bradley to make some plays off the ball. Thomas playing off the ball also makes it far harder for Chicago to trap him and get the ball out of his hands.

In the playoffs, small ripples can create big waves. Stevens tossed a pebble in Lake Michigan that created a tidal wave and the Bulls were rolled over. Now it is up to Chicago to adjust to the adjustment.