All week, Brad Stevens and many of the Celtics that have talked about their upcoming opportunity to upset the favorite to win the title this year have been overly deferential to their first round opponent. It’s been “aw shucks” this and “we’re just happy to be here” that. Heading into Game 1, there are more questions than answers.
Can the Celtics score enough points to run with the Nets? Can Boston even limit them defensively to make it a competitive series? When asked if it was good enough to hold Brooklyn to 115 points, Stevens paused and wryly answered, “if we score 116.”
The concern is legitimate. The Celtics have limped into the playoffs and they’re missing an All-Star talent. To fill Jaylen Brown’s absence, they’ll rely on Evan Fournier who missed the better part of twelve games after contracting COVID-19 and only recently has looked comfortable not only with his own health, but his role on the team. The core players have had very little time to develop chemistry and the bench is inexperienced.
However, despite all of Boston’s question marks, one constant has remained from all of their deep playoff runs over the last four years: Marcus Smart.
“We know that the odds are against us. We know what we’re up against,” Smart said of taking on Brooklyn. “This isn’t our first time that we’ve been up against a goliath of this stature and being the underdog, so we just gotta go out there and play.”
Those words may sound like sports cliches because they are, but coming out of Smart’s mouth, you know that there’s some core truth to those platitudes. As the longest tenured Celtic, we’ve seen it time and time again and we know he’ll lay it all on the line.
If Smart is the heart and soul of the Celtics, then James Harden is the singular embodiment of the Nets’ offensive firepower. As such, Smart will defend Harden as much as he can.
Since arriving in Brooklyn, Harden has taken the reigns as Brooklyn’s primary point guard. He leads the team in assists at nearly eleven per game (Kyrie Irving chips in with 6, Durant 5.5) and has basically reprised the same role he had in Houston as the engine of the Nets potent offense. Simply put, he’s the head of a very very poisonous snake.
Makes sense then to put the Celtics’ Cobra on Harden, right?
Over the last four years, per Synergy’s tracking, Smart has defended Harden for 26 minutes and 98 possessions over seven games; Harden has recorded a measly 7 assists with 8 turnovers and shot just 8-for-29 from the field, including 7-for-25 from behind the arc.
“It’s been tight to go up against a guy of his caliber. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s been more of a playmaker. It’s still the same Harden,” Smart said of primary cover of the quarterfinals.
“He can get hot. He can get in the zone. He can change the game. The same way you’ve been guarding him, it’s the same. You just gotta be ready for those passes and be ready for him to make more plays than he has in the past. Other than that, you play the same way. You just got go out there and do your best and make it as tough for him for everything he does.”
Smart’s technical savvy as a defender is nearly unmatched in the league. What he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in doggedness and irritability. There’s a daredevil element to Smart’s defense that makes him part showman, part lit fuse. The only people that can explain this classic Harden vs. Smart showdown from three years ago might be Bruce Willis circa Die Hard and Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (RIP).
That was all in seven seconds. We’re about to get an entire seven-game series of this.