Standing five inches taller, Kevin Love had a clear hight advantage against the 6-foot-3 Marcus Smart, and one the Cleveland Cavaliers would certainly exploit.
Except against Smart, it wasn’t a real advantage at all.
Smart has showcased his ability to be well-equipped to defend opposing big men this season — Smart’s gone head-to-head against Julius Randle and Giannis Antetokounmpo already — and Love was just his latest defensive matchup.
Smart never backed down when guarding the veteran power forward on Tuesday night as Smart’s defensive versatility and readiness to defend the taller and bigger Love played a pivotal role in helping the Boston Celtics defeat the Cavaliers, 119-113.
“My whole life I’ve been prepared for this. I’ve always been playing against bigger guys,” Smart said. “Every time I excel and succeed. I’ve been prepared for this moment, especially now more than ever because we are small.”
Kemba Walker on Marcus Smart: “He’s a warrior.”— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 6, 2019
With the Celtics lacking big men depth, especially with Enes Kanter still sidelined due to a knee contusion, Smart knew he would draw the defensive assignment on Love and he didn’t shy away from it.
Smart, who said he had a scare during the game when he took a hit to the same oblique he injured last year but still pushed through the possession to guard Love, was aggressive on Love, sometimes fronting the big man, but always making Love work for the 17 points he scored on 7-of-14 shooting.
“I consider myself a stretch-6,” said Smart, who on the offensive end contributed eight points and also added five rebounds and four assists. “I love those types of challenges especially a night where my defense was needed, especially when they made that run and Kevin started going. When I saw the matchup I was excited for it.”
Smart’s biggest defensive play came in the final minute with the Cavs mounting a comeback. With Cleveland trailing by three, it worked the ball just outside right block to Love. Daniel Theis came over to double team, but Smart called him off and proceeded to take care of Love on-on-one. Smart bodied up on Love and forced Love into an errant, turnaround nine-foot shot that never had a chance of going in.
“I’ve played against Kevin Love for a long time now, so pickup on tendencies and I’m such a great defender that I believe in myself and I’m always going to go with myself,” Smart said. “It’s about pride at that point. You’ve got to dig down. I’ll always call a double team off any chance I get and try to man up and take care of myself.”
It’s Smart defensive capabilities and his never-ending list of intangibles that make him so valuable, but also so hard to quantify. He probably drives the analytics people crazy because the numbers won’t add up and display the incredible asset he is to the Celtics.
But that’s just Smart. He’ll guard any position, one through five, on the floor. He’ll hit a timely shot after clanking multiple heaves in a row. He’ll come up with a turnover that seemed near impossible.
His defensive wizardry against extremely capable big men, including the reigning NBA MVP nonetheless, is something to behold because only someone like Smart could pull this off.
“I thought Smart specifically defensively on Love was about as good as it gets for a 6-3 guy guarding Love,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.