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The king of hustle: Marcus Smart pushes Celtics over 76ers

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The harder the Sixers hit, the bigger Smart grew into the game.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

The king of hustle was in full effect on Friday night, as the Boston Celtics defeated the Sixers for the third straight game. With the Celtics struggling to get their offense going, Marcus Smart took it upon himself to drive the Celtics forward.

No, this wasn’t one of those games where the 26-year-old guard shot lights out from deep. So far in the playoffs, Smart is shooting 29.2%, nearly as bad as the Sixers shot in Game 3. No, this performance was vintage Smart, with his heart and hustle on full display throughout the night.

The game started with Philadelphia playing physically, with Joel Embiid hip checking defenders as they went over screens. Smart was on the receiving end of numerous bumps from Embiid early in the game. Smart did not shy away from the contact and decided to use it to his advantage.

Physical games bring out the best in the former Oklahoma State guard:

“You got a team in Philly who has some physicality to them, and we knew that coming in. We’re not the tallest team, so we knew that we were going to have to fight, and they also knew that. We also knew they were going to use their size to their advantage, but we have a lot of guys who are very scrappy guys who can play through physicality. So when we get into games like that, it fits us perfectly. We get to get up into guys, pressure guys, and just be a pest on the defensive end.”

The Celtics were struggling to see their shots fall when operating in the half court, which switched their offensive onus to getting points on the break. With his transcendent defense, Smart contributed to the cause with three deflections and three steals. Multiple times, his defense turned into instant offense for fast break opportunities.

Al Horford is blatantly at fault for this play. His tactless pass was wild and uncharacteristic, but you take what the other team gives you. Smart did precisely that—batting the pass out of the air, gaining control of the ball with a single dribble, then driving the court. Showing incredible patience, the Texas native waits for the defense to commit before firing a ludicrous behind-the-back pass to Jaylen Brown for the thunderous dunk.

Throughout his career, Smart has been elite at garnering steals on the defensive end, never dropping lower than the 84th percentile among guards. This year, the former 6th pick sits in the 89th percentile for steals, which explains why his teammates know where they need to be when Smart initiates in transition.

“My guys know whenever I get my hands on the ball, and they need to be ready and to be able to run and get their hands ready because I’m making a pass. My whole life, I’ve been really good at reading that. When I get my hands on the ball, the first thing I’m doing is looking up. Actually, before I touch the ball, my eyes are already up, looking for who to pass it to. And once I get the ball, just make the easy play and find the guy I need to throw it to.”

When guarding his man, the 220lb guard rarely contested a shooting attempt. Instead, Smart was doing the little things: clogging passing lanes, pressuring his man, rotating with purpose, and boxing out. Smart had five defensive box-outs to finish the game, which lends itself to his impressive eight defensive rebound night.

Look how low Smart gets his body when boxing out the bigger, stronger Al Horford. By lowering his frame on this play, Smart uses his legs and core to increase his resistance when Horford is pushing to obtain a stable rebounding position.

As you would expect, Smart wins the hustle play to grab the board. What happens next? The 2019 All NBA Defensive guard turns on the jets and initiates a fast break, as the Celtics looked to pressure the resistant Sixers.

Smart’s rebounding numbers are considerably more impressive when you take a look at his season averages. According to Basketball-Reference, Smart has averaged 3.8 board per game this year, and 3.6 over his career. Cleaning The Glass has him ranked in the 39th percentile among guards for his work on the glass this season. Yet, his willingness to box-out, fight over pin downs, and put his body on the line, ensured Smart ended the contest as the Celtics joint-top rebounder on the night.

“We kind of let our foot off the pedal tonight, we could have made more plays on the defensive end. We have guys who can make those defensive plays, tonight wasn’t our best night defensively, but we found a way to come up with the victory.”

Smart’s all-action defensive performance is nothing new to Celtics fans and players. We’ve seen it first hand for the last six seasons. However, one Celtic who has only been witness to Smart’s work ethic this year is Kemba Walker, who gave a glowing assessment post-game.

“I’m glad he’s on my team, I’ll tell you that much. He’s so special. Defensively he’s a monster. He’s willing to take on any challenge. He’s willing to do anything it takes to win a basketball game. You just need a guy like that. He’s our glue guy. And whenever he’s playing like that, he’s just special, man. It’s really kind of unbelievable to watch, that man can really guard anyone in the world. I just can’t see how he’s not in the Defensive Player of the Year consideration, man. I just can’t. I can’t see it.”

Dominated by foul trouble and missed opportunities, this game needed a true leader. Marcus Smart rose to the challenge, displaying the heart and hustle which has endeared him to the hearts of Celtics fans worldwide. Every team with championship aspirations needs a “clean-up crew” type player, someone willing to run the hard miles, and make the unglamorous plays.