The date is November 1st, 2021. “I would just like to play basketball,” said Marcus Smart of Boston’s late game execution following the Celtics 128-114 loss to the Chicago Bulls. After an epic collapse and letting the Bulls outscore them 41-16 in the 4th quarter, the Celtics were staring at a 2-5 start to their season and searching for answers.
“Every team knows we are trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen and every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” said Boston’s longest-tenured player. “I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something that they’re going to learn.”
Marcus Smart was making a valid point about the development of Tatum and Brown’s playmaking but following a zero-assist night from Marcus Smart in 33 minutes of play, his words were like pouring kerosene onto a grease fire. Following a private discussion with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the team quickly put Smart’s comments in the rearview and sought to get the Celtics back on track.
Fast-forward to the end of the season, and Boston finished with a 51-31 record and second place in the Eastern Conference.
Marcus Smart on how much playing with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has helped chemistry: "When you don't think I see you that's when I see you most" pic.twitter.com/jhIbkIuugb— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 17, 2022
A massive part of the Celtics otherworldly turnaround this season has been the growth and evolution of Marcus Smart as a point guard. The improved judgement, picking and choosing his shots, and the mutual trust between him and his teammates has allowed Boston’s offense to flow freely. Smart is averaging the most assists of his career with 5.9 APG as well as shooting 41.8% from the field, his best percentage since 2018-19.
To top it all off, it was announced Monday night that Marcus Smart has won the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Boston’s defensive stalwart becomes only the 2nd point guard in NBA history to win the award, and only the 2nd in Celtics franchise history since Kevin Garnett in their 2008 championship season. Gary Payton presented the award himself at the Celtics training facility, with Smart’s teammates showering him with water in celebration of his accomplishment.
In Boston’s exhilarating win over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 on Easter Sunday, it all came down to one crucial play. After the Celtics forced Kyrie Irving to dump the ball off to Kevin Durant for a heavily-contested three, Boston snagged the rebound and got out running in transition with Jaylen Brown bringing the ball up. With mere seconds left, Brown drove to the basket, but the defense met him and for a split second, it looked like a disastrous turnover was about to put the game away.
It wouldn’t have been unfamiliar territory, as Boston had come apart in clutch situations just like this earlier in the season. A squandered lead, an opposing player going supernova in the 4th quarter, and the Celtics unraveling when the going got rough; all of the benchmarks of a game that Boston would have lost five months ago. But in the here and now, the Celtics weren’t about to cave to the pressure.
The play was like poetry in motion. Jaylen Brown reacted perfectly, and instead of forcing up a tough basket, he kicked it out to Marcus Smart on the wing. Smart looked poised to take a three, but pump-faked instead and sent two Nets defenders flying to each side of him. Smart stepped through between them and created a wide-open look for himself in the midrange. But instead of taking it, he saw Jayson Tatum cutting to the hoop, hit him with a quick pass, and Tatum spun pass Kyrie Irving for a buzzer-beating layup to give the Celtics a 115-114 win. Smart notched 20 points on 8-17 shooting (4-9 3P) with 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and two steals.
According to Basketball-Reference, Jayson Tatum's game-winning buzzer-beater on Sunday was the first by a Celtics player in a home playoff game in franchise history. pic.twitter.com/mGBX7t6Oh7— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2022
Would anyone have been shocked earlier in the season if Smart had decided to hoist a contested three-pointer to try and win the game? Or even after, when he stepped into the midrange and had an open look? Either outcome wouldn’t have been outside of the realm of possibilities.
It felt like all of the work and growth Smart, Tatum and Brown went through this season was encapsulated in this one moment. The level of trust, quick decision-making, and commitment to ball movement has shown just how far this team has come, and specifically Marcus Smart. “That’s where we’ve really improved at, and it all came together on the last possession,” said Ime Udoka of Boston’s ball movement on the final play. Boston closed out Brooklyn on a 13-7 run over the last 4:36 of the quarter, and survived an 18-point explosion from Kyrie Irving.
Even Jayson Tatum was admittedly surprised. “We all thought Smart was gonna shoot it,” said Tatum when asked about his game-winning layup. “When he took that dribble, we made eye contact, he made a great pass and I just had to make a layup.”
The Celtics took a big step in overcoming the narrative about losing their composure in high-pressure situations. “You’ve gotta credit Ime for trusting us in that situation,” said Smart when asked about the final possession. If Boston had called a timeout, who knows what would’ve happened; the Nets would have had the chance to plan and scheme defensively as well as get set, and the Celtics would have squandered a chance to capitalize on the chaos of the closing seconds.
A lot of the earlier season turmoil around the Celtics centered around Marcus Smart and his ability to be the ideal point guard for this team. To his credit, Marcus Smart always reinforced and reiterated his confidence in being the facilitator that the Celtics needed. In an interview with Jay King of The Athletic, Smart said, “I’ve been doing this my whole career and now people want to talk about I’m doing it more. It’s just like, ‘No. I’ve been doing it.’ You guys are just finally getting to see more of it because (unlike) in years past, I’m not coming off the bench, I’m not playing 20 minutes and I’m playing the point guard role now.”
Before entering the league out of Oklahoma State, Smart was being utilized as a lead point guard. From Rajon Rondo to Isaiah Thomas, to Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart was forced to come off the bench or play the shooting guard role in order to adjust for the other star guard in the backcourt. He wasn’t operating as much with the ball in his hands, and essentially became a combo guard. It’s a big part of the reason why the pairing of Smart and Dennis Schroder this season wasn’t working. Schroder was a ball-stopper while Smart was a ball-mover, and both of the two guards needed the ball in their hands to be most effective.
With the current makeup of this roster and a clear path to the point guard position, Smart was finally given the keys to Boston’s offense. The path to where the team is now was not without it’s fair share of speed bumps and detours, but the Celtics grew during arguably the greatest in-season turnaround in NBA history. Smart has been vital to the defensive renaissance in Boston, and the veteran point guard’s continued efforts are setting the tone for the league’s top-rated defense.
It cannot be overstated how much of this has come from players buying into their roles, especially Marcus Smart. He asked for everyone to have faith and put their trust in him; true to his word, Smart has delivered the results we all have hoped for. The work isn’t finished, but it’s safe to say that Marcus Smart will continue to be the point guard that Boston needed.