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Marcus Smart exit interview: true point guard

In his first season at the helm, the longest tenured Celtic won Defensive Player of the Year.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

true point guard \ troo-POYnt-gaard \
noun

1.) a skilled ballhandler and passer who dribbles the ball up the court, sets up teammates for scoring opportunities, and serves as the coach on the floor
2.) a relic of 20th century basketball that’s incompatible to the modern game and unnecessary for an effective offense
3.) see also: floor general

synonyms: Mark Jackson, John Stockton, Andre Miller, Avery Johnson, Chris Paul

antonyms: Steph Curry, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, post-2010 point guards et al.

Every few weeks for the past nine months, someone in the media would declare that “the Celtics need a true point guard,” or pose the question, “would the Celtics be better off with a true point guard?” It didn’t matter whether they were the early-season underachievers struggling to reach .500 or the defensive juggernaut that took the Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals — the “true point guard” hypothetical was a storyline that wouldn’t die.

Marcus Smart is the perfect point guard for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Correction: the best version of Marcus is perfect for Tatum/Brown — the guy that shoots 35 percent from three, posts up smaller defenders, guards 1-through-3 (and oftentimes 4 and 5), turns 50-50 balls into 75-25 balls, and (cliché alert) makes winning plays.

Smart’s 2021-2022 stats don’t scream “outstanding season.” In 71 games, he averaged 12.1 points, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.3 turnovers, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from three. Nonetheless, he was the catalyst for their historic mid-season turnaround.

On January 23rd, Smart returned after missing six games in health and safety protocols. He only missed two games the rest of the regular season and the Celtics finished 28-7, boasting the league’s top defense (104.9 defensive rating) and offense (120.2 offensive rating).

Early in the season, he struggled with ballhandling and command, but Marcus eventually became comfortable in the full-time point guard role. In those final 35 games, Boston’s 28.7 assists per game would rank 4th while their 12.3 turnovers would rank 2nd.

Smart’s never been a consistent starter during his eight-year career. As a rookie, he slid into the starting spot after Rajon Rondo got traded, remained a starter into his second year, but understandably lost it to Isaiah Thomas. During the 2018-2019 debacle, he started alongside Kyrie Irving after the 20-game mark. Last season was the first season he was guaranteed the starting point guard spot from the jump.

A “true point guard” who’d immediately improve this team simply does not exist. In the modern NBA, the point guard is usually a 20-point scorer — a guy who runs pick-and-roll, shoots off the dribble, finishes at the rim, and takes a high volume of threes. The only players who fit the “true point guard” mold in today’s NBA are Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo (who may be out of the league soon), Ricky Rubio, maybe Malcolm Brogdon (when healthy), perhaps Jrue Holliday, sort of Mike Conley, and possibly Jalen Brunson.

From an offensive standpoint, you’re at a disadvantage if your point guard isn’t a scorer; unless, of course, you have two All-Star wings. The Celtics don’t need a guy to pound the rock and run constant pick-and-roll. They need a player who commands a minimal offensive footprint, who can hit spot up threes, and who plays elite defense. Marcus Smart fits that role to a tee.

Although he didn’t finish the regular season shooting over 35 percent from three, in the 2022 calendar year, he shot 36.7 percent, and would shoot 35 percent in the playoffs on 137 attempts. He’s certainly not a guy you consistently trust from deep, but he’s transformed from a shooting liability early in his career to a competent three-point shooter.

In the past, his shot selection was erratic, but he reeled in the bad shots this year. Instead of jacking up threes when the ball got swung to him, he took pride in getting his teammates involved and turning a good shot into a great shot.

He had a career high 13 assists in 25 minutes during a March 23rd beatdown against Utah, showing off the entirety of his passing repertoire. In the following clips, he passes up a good shots for himself to get great shots for Al Horford and Derrick White:

On this next play, he makes an advanced under-the-basket swing pass to Tatum for an open three. By hanging in the air and showing the ball, the defense doesn’t know where he’ll throw it. Luka Doncic was the first to consistently make this pass, now Marcus does it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Over here, he probes both pick-and-roll defenders, hits Clarkson with a quick crossover, and makes a sweet lefty bounce pass for a Robert Williams dunk.

Smart regularly makes high degree of difficulty passes that other players would think twice before trying. Yes, sometimes they lead to turnovers, but when successful, they draw ooh’s and aah’s from the crowd. Here’s a crazy in-traffic behind-the-back bounce pass that sets up Timelord for the layup.

His risk-taking isn’t limited to the regular season. In Game 2 of The Finals, Draymond Green turned his head for a split second, and Smart threw a cross-court bounce pass to Brown for the transition finish.

In addition to his passing, Smart made strides as a driver. He averaged 8.7 drives per game during the regular season, up from 6.2 in 2019-2020 and 3.5 in 2018-2019. He’s improved as an under-the-rim finisher, as exemplified by this razzle-dazzle reverse layup against Charlotte.

On this play against Toronto, he drove to his left and hit the floating jumper with his right hand over a bigger body. I’d like to see him build upon this floater game next season.

Here against the Lakers, he drives at Anthony Davis, pulls it back, then attacks the paint and finishes with a 8-foot pull-up. He became more comfortable with that shot as the season progressed, and it’s definitely something he can utilize more frequently next season.

I’ve written so many words and haven’t mentioned Smart’s defense. He became the first guard in over twenty years to win Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t want to hear that he wasn’t deserving or that he “campaigned” for the award. He sent one tweet. That was the extent of his campaign. He was the most valuable defender on a historically great defense, and the voters valued his ability to guard multiple positions while regularly making highlight reel defensive plays.

Some people might claim Rob Williams is the best defender on the team. Respectfully, he’s not. Williams always guards the corner man, has free range to roam the baseline, and regularly leaves his feet for block attempts, which often are spectacular, but other times put the team in bad rebounding position. Marcus is the defensive quarterback who calls out coverages, expertly executes scram switches, and never misses a rotation. He guards multiple positions, draws charges, jumps passing lanes, gets chase down blocks, sacrifices his body for loose balls, and competes his butt off on every possession.

Earlier in his career, he only had one speed on defense, and while he regularly made spectacular defensive plays, his overly aggressive style didn’t put him in good standing with the refs. As he’s aged, he’s learned to pick his spots, become smarter (pun intended) about going for steals, and focus on team defensive schemes over stopping his man. His cerebral aggression makes him the NBA’s most dynamic defensive guard.

Smart played 21 out of 24 playoff games and averaged 15.4 points, 5.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, shooting 35 percent from three on 6.5 attempts. His best games were a 24-point, 12-assist, 9-rebound, 3-steal performance in a 25-point Game 2 win vs. Miami; and a 20-point, 7-rebound, 6-assist outing in Game 1 vs. Brooklyn, which included the game-winning pass to Tatum.

However, it wouldn’t be a proper exit interview if we didn’t mention Game 5 against Milwaukee and Game 7 against Miami. This is the greatest ammo for the anti-Smart crowd.

Let’s start with Milwaukee. With under a minute to go, he lost the ball in traffic and Holiday hit the game-tying 3 on the other end.

With 11 seconds remaining and the Celtics down by one, he had an open driving lane and was on the wrong end of an excellent block by Jrue. He probably should have been more patient and tried to find Jaylen or Jayson.

And on the final play, he lost the ball in transition. He held the ball a second too long and should’ve thrown the cross-court pass to Tatum. Maybe Horford should’ve looked for Tatum after catching the ball on the in-bound pass. Either way, the Celtics squandered an opportunity to go up 3-2 in the series.

We know Boston came back to win the series, and Smart played great in Game 6, scoring 21 points and dishing 7 assists in 40 minutes of play.

Now, let’s all take a collective deep breath and move on to the last three minutes of Game 7 against Miami. I’ll go through each of Smart’s shots in the final three minutes and determine whether he should have done something different.

The first, with 2:50 remaining:

Maybe he could have kicked it to Brown in the corner, but I’m ok with him taking the free throw jumper.

The second, with 2:20 remaining:

This one he shouldn’t have shot. There were eight seconds on the shot clock and Horford was open on the block. The Celtics got an offensive rebound, but this was still an ill-advised shot.

The third, 10 seconds later:

Not much he could do here as the shot clock was winding down.

The fourth, with 1:11 remaining:

This was a bad shot. Yes, he was open, but there are 11 seconds remaining on the shot clock and Miami is building momentum. He’s gotta know better.

The fifth, with 23 seconds left, which followed an offensive foul early in the shot clock by Jaylen Brown:

Nothing he can really do here. The clock was running down and he attacked the paint. I’m fine with that shot. We know Jimmy Butler proceeded to miss a pull up three and the Celtics narrowly avoided a historically embarrassing late game collapse.

These questionable late game decisions fuel the fire for the “true point guard” truthers. This was Smart’s first year as the lead decision-maker. It went more smoothly than anyone could have expected, but the bumps came at the most inopportune times. I believe Marcus will learn from these mistakes and come back a more polished late-game player.

The truth about Marcus Smart is that he had a spectacular season regardless of whether you consider him a “true point guard.” The stats don’t tell half the story. His spot up shooting, deft passing, and maniacal defense are the perfect complement to Boston’s dynamic wing duo. Anyone who thinks there’s another point guard the Celtics can realistically acquire who can significantly improve the team’s title chances are just a function of today’s post-truth society.