Marcus Smart and Damon Stoudamire rarely left each other’s side. Before games, Stoudamire awaited Smart’s entrance to the court, often the final Celtics player to warm up on game nights. Stoudamire rebounded and set him up across the court, in the lane, across the three-point line and awaited Smart’s attempted backwards shot from the corner that wowed arriving crowds less than 30 minutes before tip-off.
Similar scenes played out at practices and shootaround. While Stoudamire moved into an associate position this year, admittedly through the difficult circumstances of his long-time friend and former teammate Ime Udoka’s suspension, he remained glued to Smart, like his personal assistant — until their bittersweet parting following Monday’s loss at Houston. Two days later, Smart posted an Instagram story lamenting the arrival of the first game without him.
Stoudamire’s departure comes amidst Smart’s longest extended struggle since becoming the team’s point guard to begin last season. Smart committed a charging turnover, shot 1-for-5 from three and fouled out in the fourth of their final game together, as if their partnership were already over.
Despite Smart’s troubling return from injury, head coach Joe Mazzulla remains committed to him. “You earn that trust when he’ll confide in you about certain things and different things,” Stoudamire told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog in October, explaining their relationship. “It’s just talking about the little things, the nuances. I think that a lot of things he does for this team go unnoticed and I just try to keep encouraging, and then, the one thing that I think for me is always locking him back into the turnovers — the careless turnovers that is.”
“I think Marcus is a great passer, facilitator. Sometimes he gets a little bit careless with the pass. I think that those are one of the things, and then two, I just think keeping us organized. Those are the biggest things for me, that’s really important. In terms of shots and all that stuff, I don’t say nothing. I don’t coach that. I try to coach the things, controlling the team, knowing what the game needs.”
The Celtics badly need Smart to regain his passing stature atop an offense that ranked No. 1 all-time in offensive rating through 26 games. Crunch time effectiveness eludes them, and Smart’s -1.4 net rating in those situations since the All-star break, alongside his team-worst -39 (+/-) places pressure on Mazzulla to reduce his share — or balance the guard minutes.
Only two guard spots become available in closing lineups, unless Boston plays all three, and that trio netted -18.0 in their 30 most recent minutes. It’s becoming harder to justify sitting Derrick White, who boasts a +3.8 net rating to lead all guards late in close games and averaged 13.5 points per game on 50.5% shooting over his last 11 games. Malcolm Brogdon, shooting 45.6% from three as the regular season wanes, looks like a shoe-in for those moments.
Mazzulla emphasizes the importance of closing and opening earlier quarters, rather than placing an outsized focus on those final five minutes of fourth quarters in games played within five points. His stressing of rebounding, the free throw battle and turnovers powered a rare win where the Celtics shot 30% from three against the Wolves. They entered the night losing 17-of-26 when they shot below the league average (36%) from deep.
Smart secured a steal early in the fourth quarter on Naz Reid, drew a technical on Naz Reid from the exchange and aggressively shot the open three Grant Williams grabbed that secured the win, providing three of those four factors. Those Smart plays make his late game inclusion enticing against statistical evidence.
“I always felt like the biggest attribute, from an intangible standpoint, is that he was a winner,” Stoudamire said. “Compared to the guards in the league today, especially the point guards, most of them are scoring guards. Marcus isn’t really in that nature. He’s really kind of a throwback to be honest with you, in terms of how he plays. That’s different in itself, but being able to, for example, guard one through five on the floor and be a catalyst and ignite us on that end of the floor to get us going.”
“He’s accepting of Jayson and Jaylen and understanding that those are our guys, but at the same time, he’ll let them know when they need to be better as well ... those are the things that I try to help him with. The biggest thing that ties into all of that is you can’t hold other guys accountable and be a leader, unless you’re going to hold yourself to the same standard, because leadership doesn’t have anything to do with how many points or rebounds or assists you’ve got. Leadership has to do with being consistent every day.”
The analytical Mazzulla can’t ignore the stats, though, as the playoffs approach, especially if Smart is hurting too much to produce consistently. Nine years showed Celtics fans the difference between him at his best and his most frustrating.
Earlier this season, Smart’s outlet passes, his two-man game with Jayson Tatum, and the occasional post-up settled rather than exacerbated offensive issues for the Celtics. Now, a unit that slows down with double digit leads and tries to run out the clock, rather than running what it did all game, ranks last in fourth quarter offensive rating, scoring 101.9 points per 100 possessions.
As the pulse for the moment soon becomes a bigger deal in the pressure cooker of the postseason, Mazzulla needs to choose nightly between Smart’s intangibles and White’s proven connective abilities. For Smart — as Stoudamire and Mazzulla stressed — humility must drive whatever contributions the Celtics ask from him this spring.
“From afar, I thought that he was good at that, but since I’ve been here, I’ve thought he’s done a great job and I think that he’s bought in,” Stoudamire said. “That’s always the key, is buy in. It’s been a pleasure being around him for this last year.”