Somebody needs to call the pound. There’s a rabid pitbull on the loose, and it looks to have a point to prove. Recently, the Celtics defensive anchor, Marcus Smart, was on a local radio show when he embarked into an expletive retort to those who’ve questioned his defensive abilities this season.
Anyone who’s followed Smart’s career knows that the Texas native is about action rather than words. So, while that interview inevitably made the rounds on social media, it’s Smart’s on-court escapades that have shoved a sock in his critic’s mouths - mine included.
“I’m just getting started in getting back to who I was. And letting people know not to forget who I am on that defensive end, and what I do – being a two-time Defensive first-teamer,” Marcus Smart explained while exuding confidence as he recalled the naysayers over the past few months.
Since Boston’s uptick in performance since the trade deadline that prominent featured his name, Smart has been a focal point of the defense - just like he has for multiple conference finals teams in recent years. Defending the point of attack, limiting the opposing team’s best player, and acting as a playmaker on both ends of the floor - this version of Marcus Smart is what the team has been missing during their turbulent season. Smart missed eighteen games earlier in the year to a left calf strain.
“He’s been really good. In a lot of these games, he’s been on the point of attack. I thought he guarded (Damian) Lillard as well as anyone I’ve seen,” Brad Stevens gushed when speaking of Smarts defensive impact against Portland.
When Smart’s on his game, there isn’t a better perimeter defender in the league. Energizing his team with hustle plays, fighting to stay in front of the league’s elite - those sort of things earn respect and admiration from your peers.
“We respect him. We respect everything he’s accomplished and what he brings to the table. When somebody has your respect, they’re going to listen to you,” Jayson Tatum detailed when asked about Marcus Smart’s recent improvements.
This play sums up Smart’s performance perfectly: diving on the floor to recover the possession on offense before sprinting down court to cut out a pass into the paint. A hustle play like that one might only save the team two points, but the mental boost it gives the team is vital.
The NBA All-Defense guard finished the contest with six shot contests, three deflections, a loose ball recovery rate of 71.8% on defense, along with his 13 points, seven assists, four rebounds, and a steal. These types of all-action nights are part of what makes the Oklahoma alum special; however, it’s his ability to shackle players such as Damian Lillard that set him apart.
“I have to be that defensive stopper than I know I am, and I have to be a floor general on the offensive end,” Smart explained following his herculean performance against the Blazers.
When matched up on Lillard, Smart held his superstar counterpart to 1-of-5 shooting, two assists, and two turnovers. Above, we can see one of those turnovers unfold. Smart’s high-intensity defense, coupled with his expert navigation of a towering Jusuf Nurkic screen, forces Lillard to dish the rock. Unfortunately for the Trailblazers guard, he dished it to the stands after mistiming his pass.
“We’re all holding everybody accountable, on both ends of the floor. Just trying to play basketball the right way, to give ourselves a chance and it all comes down to defense. We’re not always going to score the ball well, so you have to go down and get some stops on defense,” Smart explained as he discussed the team’s defensive steel of late.
Jayson Tatum echoed Smart’s sentiments during his post game press conference. “Mentality-wise, get back to how we define ourselves – and that’s on the defensive end. Getting back to playing Celtics defense, what we’re known for. We’ll make shots, but we have to get back to playing defense at a high level, like we have the last couple of years.”
The seven-year guard didn’t only impress on the defensive end, his offensive performance was also indicative of his recent uptick. We’ve all become accustomed to Smart’s ill-advised threes, limitless range heat checks, and drives into brick walls. Recently, we’ve seen those ego-fueled plays far less. Instead, Smart is orchestrating the offense, allowing Kemba Walker more time to operate off-ball, while facilitating at a high level.
Assists like the one above are becoming commonplace from Smart. Running the floor in transition, Smart’s head fake causes Robert Covington to pinch into the lane to ensure the Celtics guard doesn’t crash the glass on an offensive rebound. Instead, Smart allows Covington to sag off Kemba Walker, then dishes the nice dime for Walker to get an easy finish.
While most of Smart’s exploits will never end up on highlight reels or get air time on SportsCenter, the talisman’s influence on games is growing again, and with it, the Celtics are rediscovering a winning formula that’s seen them through some tough times in years past.
If Smart can continue to lead by example on both ends, while continuing his renaissance into an invaluable defensive commodity, the Celtics will be in good hands leading up to and during the playoffs. But for now, I think a lot of us owe Smart an apology.