Understandably, NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin pulled Marcus Smart for Wednesday night’s postgame interview. Despite not recording a game-high in points — or anything, for that matter — he was undoubtedly the most impactful player in the 110-88 Celtics’ win over the Golden State Warriors.
If that was a numeric, regularly measured box score stat, Smart might lead the league. He’s a nuisance, and everyone not in a green and white uniform knows (and hates) it. Chin probably had a question about that incessant impact. But when Jayson Tatum interrupted her chat with his teammate, he did his best to put any questions to rest.
“This is the Defensive Player of the Year,” Tatum said. “I know it’s been big men lately and all that, but they gotta go back to the guards. This is the Defensive Player of the Year right here.”
"This the Defensive Player of the Year. I know it's been big men lately but they gotta go back to the guards"- @jaytatum0 crashed Marcus Smart's interview with @tvabby to let it be known ☘️ pic.twitter.com/sdXU8UKLMf— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) March 17, 2022
Chin undoubtedly knows this to be true, or at least a serious possibility, as should anyone who has watched a lick of Celtics’ basketball since the top of the year. Their run as the league’s best defensive team isn’t possible without Smart’s play. He is Boston’s anchor, through and through, from a vibe standpoint and a defensive one. Thanks in large part to his tenacity and raw penchant for being an irritant, the Celtics’ starters are allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s 18 points below the league’s average offensive rating of 111.3. That doesn’t happen without Smart. He knows it better than anyone.
“I think my game speaks for itself,” he said over the weekend. “You put me out there in front of anybody, I promise it’s gone be a battle and I promise they don’t want to see me in front of them.”
But we’ve known this for quite some time. There’s probably not a better defensive guard in the league than Smart, and there’s almost certainly not one who works as hard and plays as consistently as he does on the defensive end. Awarded or not, the NBA and its viewers know that to be factual. As does Smart, who backed it up, saying, “I play to win games, that’s my job. Whatever comes with it, I’m blessed to have.”
And the Celtics have been winning games thanks in part to Smart, but not solely because of his defense. What doesn’t get as much notice is his offensive ability, which has steadily improved over the course of his career and has reached new heights at various points throughout this season. No longer is he merely someone opponents don’t want to see in front of them on defense; he’s grown into a serious threat on the other end, too.
By the looks of it, Smart’s season has been rather run of the mill by his standards. He’s averaging 12.2 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game. He’s steadily improved as an offensive player, but for Smart, steady improvement has always meant finding consistency. Over the last three seasons, he’s done exactly that — maintained his averages, never exceeding them nor allowing them to plummet, and constantly exerting his energetic presence on both ends.
But you can’t talk about Boston’s season without discussing the fact that there have essentially been two of them. Boston flipped its script after a shaky start to the year; the same must be said of its players. Just as Tatum has looked unstoppable since the All-Star break, Smart has looked like an evolved version of himself on the offensive end. In 10 games since the break, Smart is averaging 15 points, a shade above seven assists, and a touch below four boards.
His shooting splits of 47-44-92 are, in a word, ridiculous. He’s maintained an average plus-minus of 5.3 during that time but has had a positive differential of 10 or more in five of those 10 games. The Celtics are 8-2 in this stretch, and rather dominant in those eight wins. Smart has been integral in that effort.
In the win over the Warriors, Boston’s sixth out of their last seven, Smart was electric. He poured in 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting (67 percent) — knocking down four of his seven triples as a sweetener — and doling out eight assists.
Among what was on display? His increasingly quick trigger from deep. Smart has never been a fearless shooter, but now, he has the consistency to back up the gall. He’s shooting (and nailing) more of his triples off a quick release, many of them coming with a hand in his face.
This season, the majority of Smart’s shots (38.5 percent) have come with a defender tightly contesting them, per NBA Advanced Stats. In that situation, he’s making 51.4 percent of his twos, and shooting 48.9 percent from the field overall. He’s never been that accurate.
Also on display, his savvy scoring chops off the dribble, whether he was pulling up from mid-range or driving to the hole for a tough finish. He shot 80 percent in the paint; Robert Williams III is probably — or definitely — one proud teammate.
The cherry on top of it all? His playmaking. Eight assists for Smart marked the 12th time this season he has found a teammate for a score eight or more times in a game. It’s becoming routine for him, to the point where he can gesture toward box score upon box score whenever fans or media wonder whether or not Boston has a proper starting point guard in the building.
“I don’t need to [say anything about my point guard play],” Smart said postgame. “I’ll just let my game say, ‘I told you so.’ I’m just doing what I need to do to help us win. I don’t need to say anything.”
It’s ironic, agreeing with Smart’s statement yet writing 1,000-plus words about his game — the game that you need not mention and would be better off having it wash (or crash) over you like a 1,000-foot wave. Because no matter how many descriptors of his play I attempt to conjure up, it’s still impossible to properly define Smart’s game. It’s hard not to focus so heavily on defense as it relates to Smart when the man is averaging five steals and deflections per game combined and is top-10 in both categories, per Second Spectrum. Yet all I want to do is point out how brilliantly he’s been playing on the other end.
Maybe that’s because I’ve become so familiar with Smart’s defense over the years, and thus have taken advantage of it, even if I’ve done so unintentionally. Perhaps this season, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t do the same with his offensive play. So, sure, I’ll let him stay mum about his abilities. I just couldn’t begin to think of doing the same.