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Celtics’ slow starts could lead to Smart decision

After sluggish play plagued a 1-4 road trip, could it be time to start Marcus Smart?

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Only one player remains from those early years of the rebuild and it’s no surprise that it’s Marcus Smart. The Celtics don’t officially have a captain. It’s Brad Stevens’ diplomatic way of having all his players take ownership of the team, but if there’s a voice that gets heard louder in that locker room and on the floor, it’s Smart’s.

Between Kyrie Irving’s grumblings about needing a veteran presence on the roster to remind this young team that the season is a marathon and not a sprint or all the empty, self-deprecating “my bad’s” from Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, it was Smart’s collective mind set that cut through all the BS after a disappointing 1-4 road trip came to an end on Sunday night: “we’ve got to fix this $#*&. It’s not OK.”

After the Celtics’ 100-94 loss in Portland, there was a lot of Twitter chatter about the prospect of Smart joining the starting lineup. It’s small sample size theater, but there’s some statistical data in favor of Smart playing more--whether that’s starting or not--than the 24 minutes per game he’s been currently averaging. Stevens has labeled him as his sixth starter, but so far, he’s playing a career low in minutes and that’s including his rookie and sophomore seasons.

Of the key rotational players, Smart has the highest NetRtg on the team at 8.0 (Daniel Theis is a plus-21.8, but he’s just getting back and only averages 11 mpg right now) despite thow lowest usage rate of the nine-man rotation. He’s averaging just 5.4 points and 4.3 assists per game. Part of that is his 32.8% FG%, but he’s also cut his field goal attempts in half, in favor of the offensive talent that he’s surrounded by. And yet, he’s Boston’s biggest difference maker.

For the most part, Smart has been a foil for Jaylen Brown. Both usually defend the opposing team’s toughest cover, so one of them is usually on the floor. However, Smart has shown maturity in his point guard abilities. As a primary ballhandler running pick-and-roll with Horford with Irving or Terry Rozier playing off ball, he has by far the highest assist-to-turnover ratio of anybody on the team (37.1 to Horford’s 22.4 and Irving 20.7) by getting into the paint, forcing defenses to commit, and kicking the ball out for either a shot or a secondary action.

His willingness to not be “the guy” could be what Boston needs to jump start their offense and of late, sputtering defense. After replacing Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup for the second half of the game in Phoenix, he helped spearhead a 20-point comeback with only taking one shot (which he missed).

But let’s not get it twisted. Unselfishness isn’t exactly Smart’s calling card. It’s not like we’re talking about John Stockton or Jason Kidd running an offense. Smart is a cobra; he’s always plays with his fangs out and looking to kill. For a team searching for a sense of urgency, Smart is always coiled up and ready to strike.

After he signed a new four-year, $52 million contract over the summer, Smart said, “Boston loves me, I love Boston.” As the longest standing Celtic, he gets it. His grit and grind attitude hearkens back to the last championship team of 2008. While they had stars, the back bone of that team was always their relentless competitiveness and brotherhood where every night could be a bar fight. While some his teammates struggle to figure out their role, Smart is already ready to step outside.

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