When you think of Marcus Smart, you first envision him locking down an opposing player with amazing on-ball defense. Then, if you’re an avid Boston Celtics watcher, you’ll think about him directing everything on defense and pre-switching plays before they even start to develop. Eventually your thoughts turn to him diving on the floor for a loose ball or coming up with a huge rebound, often in a key moment to make a “winning play”.
What you don’t think about is his vastly improved offensive game, especially as a playmaker. And with his return to the lineup imminent, it is surprisingly on offense where Smart may make the biggest impact for the Celtics.
When Kyrie Irving went down, Boston lost their primary ball handler. With Smart out for essentially the exact same time, the Celtics have been down to Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin as the only reliable lead guards on the roster. Despite all of his own improvement, Rozier remains more scorer than playmaker. Larkin was the team’s fourth string point guard at the beginning of the season. And that was after he fought his way onto the roster in training camp. Not exactly an ideal situation.
But that will change, probably as soon as Game 5 in Boston. All reports are that it is up to how Smart feels, as to when he returns. Anyone who saw him getting in his teammates’ faces during the Game 4 comeback knows he’ll be back for Game 5, if the decision is left up to him. With that in mind, what might he bring the Celtics on offense?
What the Celtics are missing is a secondary ball handler who can create plays for others. Right now the available player who is best at setting up his teammates is Al Horford. While Horford’s unique skillset for a big man is something Brad Stevens takes great advantage of, it’s not fair or reasonable to expect him to run the offense all the time. Rozier does a passable job, but as noted above, he’s generally looking to score himself more than to make plays for others. This is where Smart, and his huge improvement as a passer, comes into play. Take a look at this pass from the Celtics and Bucks matchup in early December:
First, notice the personnel for both sides. Horford, Smart, Rozier, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum for Boston. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, Tony Snell and DeAndre Liggins for Milwaukee. Only Liggins isn’t part of eitehr roster any longer. There is a good chance we could see these two lineups go head-to-head in this series.
Now let the clip run. The play starts with a penetration and kick from Rozier to Smart. That has Milwaukee scrambling a bit. Brogdon gets out to Smart, who drives the closeout hard. This draws Brogdon, Antetokounmpo and Maker. Snell slides over to take the rolling Horford away, so Smart makes the best play: he kicks to a wide open Morris in the corner. Maker closes, but it’s way too late. By going hard off the catch, and making the quick pass, Smart creates this easy three-pointer. This is the type of play Boston has been missing from their guards almost all series. Rozier generally looks to score in this situation and Larkin is often too small to get the pass out of the forest of arms when he hits the paint.
Same game, this time midway through the fourth quarter of a tight contest:
This clip shows Smart’s patience with the ball. Nothing is rushed and he uses Horford twice. The first screen results in nothing, so he turns right back and lets Horford re-screen Jason Terry. This time he’s getting to the paint, but he keeps his dribble for one extra bounce at the free throw line. This draws Antetokounmpo up, because he has to take away the drive or floater. With no backside help, Horford and Smart both know what the best play is and Smart floats the pass over Giannis’ head and Horford finishes with the slam. For those unfamiliar with this result (because the Celtics so rarely convert them!) it’s called an alley-oop. On a more serious note, again note the personnel for the Celtics compared to the first clip. Jaylen Brown is in for Tatum, once again making this a lineup Stevens can turn to.
This last clip comes on the Celtics next offensive possession in the same game:
For some reason the Bucks went small with Eric Bledsoe and Liggins joining Khris Middleton, Snell and Brogdon on the floor. Smart and Horford run a similar action to the previous trip to start the play. But this time Horford slips the screen and Smart goes hard to the right side of the paint. This leaves only poor Tony Snell to protect the rim. Knowing there is no big to deter the dunk, Smart again lobs the pass to Horford for a second consecutive alley-oop slam.
We know the Celtics will ask Marcus Smart to lock down a hot perimeter player, likely Khris Middleton, who has killed Boston all series. In addition, he adds depth to both the ball handler position and on the wing. He’ll allow Rozier to slide off the ball more, where he is at his best. And he’ll allow Larkin to go all out during his minutes, without fear of tiring out.
Smart will probably struggle with his shot, as he has for most of his NBA career. But the Celtics don’t need him to be a shooter. They have plenty of guys who can knock down shots. What they need is a playmaker. Someone who can get into the paint and patiently make the right reads to get his teammates easy hoops. Smart brings that, along with his always excellent defense. Oh…and a bunch of “winning plays” won’t hurt either.