Basketball is a team sport, but an individual player’s performance can have a greater influence on the outcome than in most others. The Celtics lost as a unit on Thursday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but it was Marcus Smart‘s 5-for-13 from the field--several of them questionable shots--that might have titled the scales.
A recurring sentiment throughout this post-season (and really, the entirety of Brad Stevens’ tenure) has remained that “water finds its level,” meaning that there are good days and bad days when it comes to shooting. After multiple games where Smart’s water has been overflowing, it would appear that the faucet has been shut.
On a Celtics team so diverse in scoring threats, Smart’s main role should remain on the defensive end and taking open looks if and when they present themselves. Too often, Smart will bail the team out with a couple of go-ahead buckets, then become overly aggressive and hinder the teams’ offensive balance with heat checks and poor decision making.
When Smart passed up a wide open Jaylen Brown in Game 1, the signs were there.
This was one of the most selfish shots Boston has endured in the playoffs. I'm sorry, but I would prefer Smart defending and facilitating, regardless how improved his shooting is.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) September 16, 2020
His value is on defense. Don't need him to be superman in the third quarter of game 1. https://t.co/I4V5u6J7EI
Fast forward to Game 2 and we’re treated to a spectacle of contested shots that ultimately fell short.
When has Smart ever been a post threat? Never in the history of Smartdom has someone said, “Smart’s post moves are unstoppable.” Yet, here we are. Going to a post-spin move, the 26-year-old guard draws three defenders. An extra pivot would have sealed the defense and provided Smart with the daylight to hit Brad Wanamaker open beyond the arc.
Instead, Smart spins and puts up a wildly contested shot from close range. Granted, this was Smart’s second miss of the night, but 14 seconds remained on the shot clock, still plenty of time to re-work for a cleaner look.
It got worse from there, going 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter to add insult to injury. It’s that scoreless stretch where Smart’s worst choices came into play.
A pass fake to Jaylen Brown gets Tyler Herro to react, allowing Smart room to drive the lane. As the defense closes in, there are three available passes: Jaylen Brown is now wide open on the strong-side shoulder (though Smart can’t see that), Grant Williams is on the low-block for a dump-off pass, and Brad Wanamaker has oceans of room in the weak side corner. Instead, Smart takes it hard to the rim and gets blocked from behind by Derrick Jones Jr.
There’s not much wrong with this shot selection. There’s enough room for the All-Defensive First Team guard to step into his shot with little resistance, and we’ve seen him make those over the last ten games. However, the Celtics are behind, and there’s enough time on the clock to move the rock or penetrate and find a better shooter.
Wow. Just wow. Tie game, under three minutes remaining and ten seconds left on the shot clock. Soon as the Texas native starts to drive, the defense pinches, causing the guard to run into a double team. For a moment, Kemba Walker is wide open at the break. Smart pivots, Jimmy Butler closes out on Walker, and there’s the fadeaway from Smart with all kinds of hands in his face. All that was missing was the echo of “Kobe” as he released the ball.
There was enough time on the clock at the start of this possession to make something happen. Had Smart given the rock back to Walker, a drive would likely occur, freeing up someone on the wing or cutting baseline. Instead, it was an ugly shot that Smart has no place shooting in a conference finals game.
Twenty seconds are remaining on the shot clock, Boston down five. Marcus Smart received the ball and finds Jae Crowder switched on to him instantly. Tatum sees Smart and begins to shade towards the strong side corner to pull up or drive baseline. Before Tatum can get to his spot, Smart has jacked up his final attempt of the night, and like the majority of shots before this, he misses.
While Smart’s growth as a scorer is evident, it doesn’t mean he should become a focal point of the team’s offense. As discussed numerous times on the CelticsPod podcast, you can’t up your offensive output without your defense taking a slight hit. Having the option of a defensive menace breaking out the weaponry when players are struggling is a luxury, not a necessity.
And by no means should his recent scoring outbursts be swept under the rug, but they should be reined in. In no universe should Smart be taking more shot attempts than Tatum. A disagreement between the Oklahoma State alumn further soured this performance. If this continues, Smart’s goodwill with the fanbase may start to decline. Because right now, if this is the “Marcus Smart Experience,” then the team may be looking to get off the ride at the next available exit.