For a guy that struggles as much with his shot as Marcus Smart does, it seems like he has every other base covered in inflicting his will on a basketball game.
Between providing elite perimeter defense and versatility, diving on the floor for a loose ball or grabbing an offensive rebound in impossible traffic, it comes to no surprise when Brad Stevens consistently includes Smart in his most crucial lineups.
Before Game 1 on Sunday, I wrote about how the Celtics had an advantage with Smart against the Cleveland back court’s weak defense, especially in the post. Smart scored twice in the post during the blowout and should have more opportunities over the course of the series, but it was his playmaking as a point guard where he dominated the action.
While Celtics fans have been hoping for Smart to develop as a shooter and scorer over his first four years in the NBA, the former sixth overall pick improved substantially as a passer over the last two seasons. He is the longest tenured Celtic on the roster and has a well-regarded basketball IQ.
This allows him to be patient in the pick-and-roll and survey the floor to deliver on point passes to open shooters or cutters. Smart doesn’t shoot the ball well in any sense, but he put massive pressure on the Cavs’ suspect defense on Sunday with his playmaking.
The first play is a great example of what a hard drive can do to a defense. With the left side of the court cleared for a pick and roll with Marcus Morris, Smart collapses the defense and hits Aron Baynes with a quick bounce pass once Kevin Love steps in front. Easy lay up.
The second play might be more of a bad defensive possession from the Cavs, but Smart still identifies the mismatch after LeBron James switches on to him. He places a perfect pass over George Hill that leads to a wide open dunk for Morris. If JR Smith was earlier on his rotation there would have been a kick out opportunity for either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.
When you’ve got it going, you’ve got it going. The Celtics’ ball movement left the Cavs in vulnerable spots and Smart was ready to make them pay for it. On his prettiest pass of the day, Smart faked to Semi Ojeleye in the corner after James sprinted out to him, faked to Baynes in the paint and then hit Brown with a bullet pass once Rodney Hood rotated off of him.
Then, the Cavs must have been expecting a Smart-Horford pick and roll because when Horford popped nobody was home. It was a breakdown on defense but it was clear that Smart was in control of the game. He went 4-12 from the field and 1-5 from three, but we’ve seen before how poor shooting performances don’t seem to matter to Smart’s overall impact on a game.
Boston should expect a much more engaged Cleveland team for Game 2, especially a much more aggressive LeBron. It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to hold Cleveland to 83 points like they did Sunday, so it’s imperative that the Celtics continue to exploit mismatches on offense.
Whether that’s feeding Smart in the post with Kyle Korver defending or having him dice up the Cavs’ defense as a primary ball handler, Boston has a real offensive advantage in having Smart on the floor. Because he can defend just about everyone on Cleveland’s roster, Smart may just be difference in the Celtics advancing to their first NBA Finals since 2010.
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