With the Celtics reeling and looking for a win before a 3-day break, the team needed a facelift after a lackadaisical effort on the defensive end against the Dallas Mavericks. So the Celtics did what they always do when they need to restore structure on the court: they brought in Marcus Smart, only this time they inserted him into the starting lineup with the absence of Jaylen Brown. The results? The Celtics had their most dominating performance of the season and stomped the Pelicans 124-107. It was a dominating performance by multiple Celtics on the court, but the contributions of Smart were clear.
Against the Mavericks, the Celtics were a step slow the entire night defending the pick-and-roll and it led to a plethora of easy looks. That was not the case against the Pelicans where Marcus Smart set the tone by not getting beat at the point of attack no matter how much the Pelicans screened and re-screened.
The Celtics forced the Pelicans into 22 turnovers and the starting lineup held the Pelicans 4th ranked offense to a 100 offensive rating which would be equivalent to the 29th ranked offense.
Don’t think the Celtics hold on to that lead without Marcus Smart coordinating the perimeter defense and transition D in the middle of the fourth.— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) November 27, 2018
Offensively, Smart’s extra ball-handling really opened up the offense for Kyrie who got to start the game off-ball where he could better look for his offense.
Celtics with Kyrie/Smart on the floor together on Monday night:— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) November 27, 2018
75 points scored in 26 shared minutes, team shot 52.7% overall and 61.9% from 3. Outscored Pels by 17 in that span.
Kyrie Irving was a big fan of how tonight's starters opened game: "I think the unit that we had out there today, we really had that mindset going that we wanted to start off the game and have a defensive presence. Marcus (Smart) on the ball took some of that pressure off me..."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 27, 2018
Smart’s best contributions as a playmaker came in the 4th quarter where he generated 4 of his 5 assists in a combination of set plays and dribble penetrations to find open shooters.
Boston’s starting lineup generated 22 assists which would be equivalent to first among starting lineups in the league. Not all of that can be directly attributed to Smart (Irving had 10 assist on his own), but his willingness to continue to move the ball and help funnel the offense to their best scorers was the type of role the Celtics needed to surround with guys like Irving, Tatum, and Horford.
Should this be the new lineup?
So, a couple of qualifiers. One, Marcus Morris was also a new addition into the starting lineup and he had 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists. Two, Brad Stevens already said that he wouldn’t settle on a lineup until “forever.” Three, it’s a one game sample size.
With all that being said, enough can’t be said about how fluid the Celtics looked with another playmaker in the lineup and how much more connected the team looked on defense with a player like Smart who get over screens, communicated coverages, and doesn’t require help defenders to overcommit.
When it comes to building a championship team every team needs a James Posey, Shane Battier, and Draymond Green to compliment the stars on their team. Everyone can’t be looking for their offense and the Celtics have struggled with that a bit as younger players like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have tried to assert themselves and struggled with minimized roles. Offsetting this by inserting a team-oriented player like Smart has yielded great returns thus far and the team is now 4-1 when Smart plays 27 or more minutes. There’s still 61 games left in the season and a lot can happen, but this game may be the beginning of the team finding their identity.