For Marcus Smart, it was just a routine play. There was a loose ball on the floor and he was going to dive for it and he was going to get it. That’s just how he was wired. Except, unlike the hundreds of times he dove on the ball in high school and college, Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett wanted the ball too and he seldom lost those matches. Both players hit the floor, but Smart got their quicker and had enough time to throw the outlet over the tumbling Garnett. The crowd erupted in appreciation of the hustle play, but the biggest nod was from the ex-Celtic Smart was wrestling with.
As Marcus Smart’s career began to unfold, his destiny appeared to be a guy limited in offensive ability but high on heart. His shooting drew the ire of the locals, but his elite defense and development as a playmaker kept him on the floor and an overall positive on the floor. His fate as a career energy bench guy seemed all but locked in when prior to the 2017-18 season, in a contract year, he volunteered to come off the bench when it became apparent that the team was unsure whether to start him or Brown. It was later that those skills as a spark plug became the irreplaceable glue that put the Celtics’ season back together.
Things weren’t going as expected in Boston. After a dizzying summer in 2017 that lead to the team saying goodbye to all but four members of a 53-win team, the excitement of a chance to compete for a title was quickly ruined after a gruesome injury to All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. The excitement was further dampened when, even after a strong regular season, the team lost Kyrie Irving for the year with a lingering knee issue.
The team rebounded well and, thanks to the rise of some of the young players, the team raised its regular season win total to 55 games and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where they took LeBron James and the Cavaliers to seven games. With the improvements of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier, there was excitement around the team and the possibilities of what the young players could do with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward coming back. But like most things in the NBA, things did not go as envisioned.
Boston started the 2018-2019 season 10-10. The team destined to challenge the Warriors in June looked more like a team that would be lucky to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. With Jaylen Brown sidelined with injury and the team searching for answers, they turned to the man they always relied on when things went wrong: Marcus Smart.
There’s is no other proper way to classify Marcus Smart’s position outside of “basketball player.” Standing at 6’4, 220 lbs, Smart hasn’t just proved his worth as a perimeter defender—he’s one of the best defenders in the league.
Here’s Celtics head coach Brad Stevens on his versatility back in 2016, “I think his greatest strength will always be that he’s a guy that makes winning plays that sometimes aren’t quantified, whether that’s guarding a [Paul] Millsap for eight minutes, or guarding [Kristaps] Porzingis for six minutes, or guarding the point guard for the next four. He’s just a guy that will do anything you ask to help this team win.”
On offense, he quickly became one of the most dynamic playmakers on the team and somehow created gravity with his shooting despite not being a very good shooter.
With all that being said, the Celtics came into this year with their own interpretation of a death lineup: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Unfortunately, the lineup sputtered quickly, positing a -2.8 net rating. Though the lineup was high on versatility and ability, it struggled with role synergy and overall balance. The team needed a player that was willing to do the dirty work that didn’t necessarily need touches to add value.
Enter Marcus Smart.
Since the Celtics insertion of Marcus Smart into the lineup the Celtics have gone 20-8, the new starting lineup consisting of Irving, Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford has posted a 15.1 net rating and the team has posted the highest net rating in the league. Outside of Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum, its Smart whose absence in the lineup creates the most negative impact on the team’s net rating.
Smart’s impact is two-fold. His ability to run the offense opens up more options because it gives them more versatile ways to use Kyrie Irving. On top of that, his playmaking ability and a lack of need for shot attempts allows the Celtics to funnel their offense more towards Irving and Horford, who are the team’s most versatile offensive pieces.
On defense, he’s able to start the game on the opponent’s best perimeter defender and in conjunction with Al Horford, gives the Celtics two of their best communicators defensively. Adding to all of this, Smart has even begun to find his own offense, shooting 36.6% from three and 61% at the rim. Both marks are career-highs.
Smart’s impact has not been lost on Irving. “I’m so grateful he’s on our team, really, I just watched some of his highlights in college as well as some of his playoff highlights defensively and offensively, and it’s just unmatched,” he said.
The parallel’s of Smart and Green are unique. They share the burden of being the backbone of teams that do everything they can’t. It’s not glamorous, while Irving got the headline for out lasting Kawhi Leonard, not many gave credit to Smart who made Leonard’s life a living hell on the other end.
On the flip side, while the Warriors evisceration of the NBA is routinely highlighted by the dizzying amount of long range bombs Curry drops on opponents, Draymond’s ability to defend Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and others have been just as instrumental in the teams death lineup being nearly impossible to beat. Through advanced instincts and a willingness to put the team above everything, Marcus Smart and Draymond Green have provided the baseline for their star counterparts to build from.
Now, with the Celtics winners of ten straight at home and the Warriors playing the best basketball they have all season, the two warriors will have their first meeting of the season Saturday night. They’ll rarely be matched up against one another and they’ll be low on the totem pole for storylines, but both possess the keys that unlock their team’s success and with it, could begin the journey of a the NBA’s new biggest rivalry.
In Part lll, we’ll evaluate the first Smart/Green match up of the season. You can find Part I here.