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The best of Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is quietly piecing together one of the best offensive stretches of his career during this Celtics surge.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers
Oftentimes, less is more for Marcus Smart.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the Celtics have ascended from the middle of the pack to the upper echelon of the NBA in recent weeks, Marcus Smart has been a steady, reliable force – and not just on the defensive end.

Smart, often maligned for his offensive struggles when the Celtics are playing poorly, deserves credit for his offensive prowess during this recent run.

His career averages are 10.4 points, 4.4 assists, 38 percent from the floor and 32 percent from 3. In the last 13 games, Smart is averaging 12.9 points and 5.6 assists while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 36.9 percent from distance.

With his aggressiveness taking the ball to the basket, undisputed passing ability and improved shot selection all on display at the same time, it’s fair to say this has been one of the most consistent stretches of his career offensively and it’s not a coincidence that the Celtics’ best stretch of the season has aligned with Smart’s best stretch of the season. They lost to the Pistons in mid-February when Smart was sidelined with an ankle injury, and otherwise, their loss to the Pacers on Sunday is their only other setback in a month.

With Smart as their anchor, the Celtics are making the savvy, simple play over and over again. Here’s a closer look at why Smart has thrived offensively of late.

He’s taking the ball to the basket.

In the past 13 games, Smart has only attempted more than seven 3’s once. He’s taken two or fewer four times during that span.

The days of fans screaming “No, Marcus!” at their TV’s are long in the past.

Smart is shooting 60.3 percent this season on shots five feet or fewer from the hoop, en route to a career-high 4.8 points in the paint per game. Teams have to pay so much attention to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (as they should), that Smart is often the beneficiary of 1-on-1 matchups he can exploit with ease.

He’s able to use his quickness to beat his defender off the dribble, take a floater or runner that typically finds its way in, or throw a lob to Robert Williams.

He isn’t waiting for defenses to set up unless he has to and is doing much of his damage in transition.

Only 49.1 percent of his shots have been 3s, which is his lowest percentage since 2017-18. Just 39.3 percent of his points come from 3-point range, which is his lowest mark since 2016-17. For a player like Steph Curry or Trae Young, that’s not ideal. For Smart, it illuminates a promising trend.

Sometimes less is more, and he’s starting to figure that out.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers
Marcus Smart’s playmaking ability shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

His playmaking ability is elite.

Smart has put the debate about whether or not he’s a true starting point guard to rest (at least for the time being). It’s a fun debate, and both sides have merit, but it’s hard to make a compelling case against him as long as the Celtics keep winning.

He has a knack for giving them exactly what they need at the right moment. Here, Facundo Campazzo is stuck on Smart, and Smart is able to overpower him. The Celtics’ spacing is excellent, and Derrick White and Grant Williams are both threats to shoot, so the defenders on the wing have no choice but to stay put. When Nikola Jokic comes to lackadaisically help, Robert Williams is wide open for an easy two.

Smart has the sixth-best plus-minus (6.1) this season out of players who have appeared in at least 50 games, behind only Curry, Chris Paul, Jokic, Mikal Bridges and Tatum. He’s had a positive plus-minus every year of his career, but it’s never been close to this high.

His net rating is a career-high 8.8, player impact estimate is a career-high 9.3, and his assist percentage of 22.8 is his second highest ever, per NBA.com.

With Tatum and Brown handling the bulk of the load, Smart simply has to be a dribble-drive-oriented, pass-first point guard who trusts the system and the talent around him, and that’s exactly what he’s done.

Wins have piled up, criticism has dwindled, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that keeping him in Boston was the right move.