Without Kemba Walker in the lineup, consistent scoring is hard to come by.
The Boston Celtics, like every other team, try to design an offense and playbook around their top-three threats. When he returns, Walker joins Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in a clear trio of scorers, and the motion-based offense fits the three of them well.
With Walker out indefinitely with a knee injury, Tatum and Brown are somewhat on their own, surrounded by a cast of role players designed to provide effort, defense and grit. Through five games, it’s been an up-and-down performance from the supporting cast.
The guy most look to as the third cog in the wheel sans-Kemba: Marcus Smart. More of a wing than a point guard at heart, Smart is a strong-bodied play finisher who has improved greatly as a shooter — when he takes the right ones. He’s been good from deep this year, starting the season 12-for-28.
What’s surprisingly absent from Brad Stevens’ playcalling arsenal has been playing through Smart in the post. The Oklahoma State product is a husky 6’3”, strong enough to out-muscle anyone his own size or smaller. Thus far, he’s registered zero shot attempts coming from a post-up, according to Synergy Sports Tech player-tracking data.
In years past, its been a sought-out part of the Celtics’ arsenal. Smart bullies smaller point guards down low. During the 2018-19 season, Stevens added wrinkles in their playbook for specific opponents who had flimsy bodies guarding Smart, like then-rookie Trae Young in Atlanta or Dennis Schroder in Oklahoma City. He took 25 shots out of post-ups a year ago and 24 in 2018-19.
Easy buckets for Smart. As a pseudo-point guard, it was common for him to be accompanied by another small guard — the Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier rotating door. Basketball Reference’s lineup stats show that in 2018-19, Smart got only 8% of his minutes as the only point guard on the floor.
That number rose to 23% last year after Rozier left town, leaving a void in the backup spot. As such, there was a slight uptick in his post usage per game. Some of the actions and sets were the same, some were wrinkles out of Boston’s main offense to get him in the post, and sometimes he just backed his way down and demanded the ball when a mouse was in the house:
He also got really good at screening to force switches to get the right matchup to exploit as the year wore on, and his teammates learned how to lay out and let him have those moments. If it was potent enough to be used with a healthy Tatum, Brown and Gordon Hayward, it should be potent enough now.
Through the first four games, 54% of Smart’s minutes have come where he’s at the 1. That’s the largest share since his rookie season and as much out of necessity as anything.
So why haven’t we seen Smart lowering his shoulder through guys more often?
Scheduling has a large role to play. The Celtics have opened their season with opponents who don’t lend themselves to being taken advantage of in this way. The Milwaukee Bucks have stout defender Jrue Holiday to match up with Smart; they have size elsewhere and clogged the lanes. The Brooklyn Nets switched everything, adding a different wrinkle that make many of these screening actions difficult to plan. With the Indiana Pacers, their large backcourt of Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo would render Smart’s attack inert.
The other biggest factor comes down to the lack of spacing around him when the Celtics play two bigs together. The starting combo of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, with Robert Williams and Grant Williams coming off the bench, surround point guard Smart with bruising bodies and non-shooters. Post-up threats are less likely to be effective when sending help to blanket Smart doesn’t have many risks for the defense.
Looking down the barrel, the schedule could benefit Smart for some post sets soon. The next four games are against the Detroit Pistons (two against Derrick Rose), Toronto Raptors (with Fred VanVleet), and Miami Heat (Goran Dragic). Other Eastern Conference foes like Atlanta (Trae Young), Cleveland (Darius Garland), and Charlotte (Devonte Graham) are vulnerable to being bullied by Smart.
It’s not a perfect answer to offense by any means. When the C’s are full strength, this is, at most, a two-or-three time a game action against the right opponents. But Boston is not at full strength right now, trying to buy time for injuries to heal and youngsters to earn their stripes.
Posting up Smart, when a double-team or extra help is required, can create opportunities for teammates at the rim. To Smart’s credit, he’s a capable and willing passer when doubles come and there are cutters around him:
That’s why, when Stevens called his number for these for the first time all season on Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, it resulted in a dunk for Tatum:
Posting up Smart isn’t just to create easy buckets for him, it’s for the whole team.
As a general rule, I try not to look too deeply into drawing conclusions about what the Celtics lack or are great at until about ten or fifteen games in. Discussing Smart post-ups isn’t an indictment on the team disappointing compared to expectations, just a surprise absence from their playbook when they are currently thin on scorers. As the matchups get right, look for Smart to become more of a focal point and creator down low.