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Marcus Smart is more than making up for Gordon Hayward’s absence

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Marcus Smart stole the show in the fourth quarter of Game 2 with a scorching shooting performance in what was the culmination of years of hard work.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Lowry couldn’t help but chuckle when asked about the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. “I mean Marcus Smart hit five straight threes,” Lowry said. “That’s just…it’s just tough. That’s tough.”

With Gordon Hayward sidelined for the series due with an ankle injury, part of the onus offensively was always going to be on Smart to help account for the 17.5 points and 4.1 assists the C’s are missing without Hayward. He came through big time on Tuesday, racking up 21 points – including 16 in the fourth (5-for-5 from behind the arc). Smart was his usual, pesky self on the defensive end, but it was on the offensive side of the ball where he really changed the game.

It was fitting, too, that the fourth quarter outburst came in a game where he shot just 1-for-7 in the opening three periods. In the last couple years, Smart has become a VIP member of the “No. No. No. YES!” club. In the playoffs, guys who are capable of hitting 5 or 6 threes in a game are far more dangerous than those who maybe shoot it around 40% but only take 1 or 2 attempts a night, and Marcus Smart showed just why on Tuesday.

His eruption in the fourth quarter helped the Celtics flip an 8-point deficit into a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. It was the kind of stretch that can change a playoff series, and it’s a testament to the work that Smart and the Celtics’ development staff have put into his shooting. Smart came into the league with the same energy and vigor he still has on the defensive end but, throughout his first few years, he was often something of an offensive liability who teams could afford to leave open. While he was never shy, taking 4.2 threes a game during his first 4 seasons, Smart converted less than 30% of his triples over the course of his rookie contract.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The last two years, though, have been a different story. While his volume stayed essentially the same from 2018 to 2019, Smart upped his conversion rate all the way to 36.4% last season. The efficiency dropped a bit (down to 34.7%) this year as he’s now taking 6.6 a game, but Smart has become elite at one of the most important shots in today’s game – the pull-up 3. So much of game now is played in the pick-and-roll, and the fact that Smart has developed a pull-up 3 has just added a whole new element to his repertoire. Smart’s 52.8 eFG% ranks 5th amongst players with over 2 pull-up attempts a night.

This season alone, Smart has made more than 5 three-pointers in a game a whopping 9 times, more than in his first 4 years combined, including one night with a Celtics-record eleven 3’s and twice with six.

It’s been a truly remarkable development, and coach Brad Stevens took some time out to acknowledge that. “That’s been a lot of hard work on his part and he deserves the credit for that. Good shooters should have confidence. They should step into it like they know they’re going to make it. We certainly have confidence in him and those other guys.”

The fourth out of five in his magical fourth quarter run is a shot the Celtics are now comfortable with him taking. But as NBA.com’s John Schumann noted, since you don’t want to over-dribble against the Raptors, it’s sometimes harder to get those pull-ups off, and shooting off the catch is equally as important.

Smart’s catch and shooting has gone the opposite way of his pull-up shooting. Last year, he finished in the 75th percentile on his C&S looks with a 57.4 eFG%, right around guys like Paul George and Eric Gordon, but this year it’s plummeted down to 47.2%, in the bottom quartile of the league.

As we can see from this plot, it’s quite rare that a player has a higher eFG% on pull-ups rather than on catch-and-shoot attempts - Smart was one of only four others this season - and given Smart’s numbers from last year, I would expect his C&S numbers to jump back to at least league average next season.

Smart’s first two triples came on catch and shoot attempts off feeds by Jayson Tatum (in what was probably the most impressive passing performance of his career), but where he did superbly was in leveraging that new-found gravity into some pull-ups off one dribble.

With Serge Ibaka stuck isolated on Jayson Tatum, Fred VanVleet is forced to slide over and show a little help around the free throw line. Tatum times the pass to perfection and Smart has a decent look at the basket. At this point, he has already made two threes in the quarter and knows that VanVleet will have to be aggressive in his closeout.

Smart has the presence of mind to pump fake and send VanVleet flying by, and steps right into an open shot. He did the same on his final triple of the night, with a head fake that freezes OG Anunoby and gives Smart the space to fire off the shot even with the foul.

With Tatum and Kemba cooking in the Sixers series, there wasn’t as much of a need for Smart to take on a heavier load offensively, but the Raptors have much better wing defenders than Philadelphia and Smart has recognized that and been more assertive in Round 2. While his touches and time of possession have remained relatively similar, Smart’s been way more aggressive in pulling the trigger on even semi-contested looks. He has taken 24 FG’s in the first two games of this series after logging just 30 in the entirety of the first round.

“He does whatever needs to be done to win,” Stevens said. “And tonight we needed a little jolt offensively.”

While many, including myself, expected Smart to take on a bigger playmaking role in the playoffs without Hayward, it’s actually been Jayson Tatum who’s stepped into that initiator role, even more when Kemba Walker sits. Tatum’s touches (68.1 to 73.5) and time of possession (3.5 to 4.4) have both skyrocketed. Given the leap he’s shown in his passing, it’s no surprise that Brad Stevens is handing him the keys to the offense. Playing in more of an off-ball role makes that spot-up shooting all the more important, and Smart getting back to last year’s level on catch-and-shoot jumpers could be a crucial factor in swinging this series Boston’s way.