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Marcus Smart establishes order

The return of Marcus Smart brought playmaking on both ends that the team desperately needed.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are known as a uperstar’s playground. They get the ball in their hands at all times and despite the technical details of the game, what it boils down to is whether your team stops this player. Series are won and lost on this question, and it’s how most analysts view the chances of a team advancing or going home.

To the naked eye, Marcus Smart making his return from a thumb injury that kept him out for the better part of six weeks was interesting, but not series-shifting. Milwaukee Coach Joe Punty seemed a bit dismissive about the impact of his return, and one look at his box score would maybe even have you agreeing with him.

That’s the first mistake people make about Marcus Smart. What he brings to the table has very little to do with himself and everything to do with what he does for his team and teammates.

The block is the obvious highlight of this play, but what makes this play is Smart’s ability to recognize what’s about to happen as soon he sees Rozier get caught by the screen and when he realizes Baynes won’t get there in time, stays in the paint and makes the play on the ball. Most defenders would have thought about going to their initial assignment (wide open Snell in the corner), and that split second of hesitation would have been the difference between the play above and a momentum-shifting alley-oop.

Here’s another play:

The bread and butter of the action here is the off-ball screen with Morris and Brown; it puts Snell in an awkward position of either having to help off on the roll man or stay with Jaylen at the top of the key. But he’s not the only one making a decision. Smart is reading Snell, looking to make him pay for whatever decision he makes. Snell stays home, and the rest is history.

Smart’s ability as a playmaker is something the Celtics missed dearly. Rozier played the part and at times played it well, but his strength is to score, and you could see that even he benefitted from getting not having to run an offense.

Once again, this comes down to decision-making. These were merely two slips by Rozier and Baynes. The Bucks like to hedge screens and expect their bigs to get back, but when it’s a slip instead, it puts Maker at a disadvantage and forces Dellavedova to pick between giving Baynes a clear path to the basket or tagging him before getting out to his man (Rozier). He makes his choice and Smart instantly makes him pay.

Before Smart’s return, the Celtics were relying on Shane Larkin to run the offense. Though he’s had some good moments, the length of the Bucks is a tough matchup for him and reads like this turn are hard for him because of the size disadvantage. This in turn lead to Rozier and Horford having to take a bunch of the ball-handling duties which of course meant they had to do more creating for themselves than the Celtics would have liked.

Now, take a second and look back at those three highlights. Do you see a theme forming? Smart’s impact isn’t what he does alone, but instead, the more natural roles he allows his teammates to assume by making the right plays over and over again. The domino effect of not having any strong guards that are strong playmakers is guys being forced to play positions that they aren’t comfortable with and having a shot profile that isn’t ideal. Smart may not come into game and himself score, but making the likelihood of guys around him score can be just as valuable if not more valuable, and even in an ugly offensive game you could see a more functional offense taking shape.

Sometimes, the translation of a player who makes “winning plays” gets equated to guys whose roles are merely playing with maximum effort and energy to make up for the lack of talent (read: Matthew Dellavedova). That couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Smart. His ability to Quarterback on both ends of the floor won’t win him any scoring titles, but it re-establishes roles and the identity of the team in a way that a depleted Celtics team desperately needed.

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