The Boston Celtics were a highly effective team during the 2019-20 regular season, finishing in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency and cruising to a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference. While Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown receive the lion’s share of attention, Marcus Smart remains a key cog for the Celtics, and his impact was on full display in the team’s Game 2 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday evening.
Smart finished the night with 19 points in 39 minutes, providing top-shelf play on both ends of the floor. The 26 year old also reminded observers of his flair for the dramatic, almost singlehandedly erasing a double-digit deficit with a three-point shooting barrage in the second half.
Smart scored 16 of his 19 points in a four-minute span to open the fourth quarter and, as seen above, he knocked down five (yes, five) three-pointers in a row. That included a four-point play to punctuate the run and, without that explosion from Smart, it is difficult to see how the Celtics would have emerged victorious against a hungry and talented Raptors team.
This offensive eruption isn’t predictable for anyone, even for players at the top of the sport on that end of the floor. Still, Smart has come a long way offensively in the recent past, especially with regard to his perimeter shooting. In his first four seasons, Smart was a full-blown liability as a floor-spacer, shooting just 29.3 percent from three-point range and earning jeers when he attempted deep shots. Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, though, Smart is a 35.5 percent three-point shooter, displaying tangible improvement.
While no one will mistake Smart for Steph Curry or even his teammates in Tatum and Walker, it isn’t only the efficiency that has improved with Smart. He attempted a career-high 9.9 three-pointers per 100 possessions this season and, with that kind of volume, defenses simply must respect his long-range arsenal, opening the floor for teammates. Smart is also capable of creating his own shot, bringing another element to the table to feed into one of the league’s best offenses.
Game 2’s shooting display will draw the attention and, given the aforementioned four minutes of bliss, that is understandable. Smart remains an incredibly lethal defensive force, however, and he flummoxed Toronto’s leading scorers throughout the night. The exclamation was a play in the final minute in which he stoned Pascal Siakam and, while the play didn’t actually end in a turnover after an official review, it was a reminder of Smart’s brilliance and strength.
In the absence of Gordon Hayward, Smart is even more important for the Celtics. Boston does have some intriguing depth pieces but, at the highest level, Brad Stevens’ allotment of quality options took a hit without Hayward, putting increased focus on a five-man lineup of Walker, Tatum, Brown, Daniel Theis, and Smart.
Ultimately, it is a luxury for the Celtics to have a super role player available in Smart, and he is the kind of impact performer that would make a difference on any team in the NBA. Defensively, he can guard four (or even five?) positions effectively, taking away smaller guards with his size and tenacity, while leveling up against forwards with his physicality and toughness. Offensively, Smart can draw from his background as a primary creator, handling the ball effectively and creating for himself and others when needed. In the same breath, he can space the floor, doesn’t need the ball to be effective and Smart helps to unlock a Boston team that already has plenty of star power.
Jayson Tatum: "I ain't never played with nobody like Smart. I ain't never met nobody like Smart. He. Is. One. Of. A. Kind."
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) September 2, 2020
It may seem silly, at least to some, to laud a player that averaged fewer than 13 points per game this season, especially when compared to his peers with more impressive box-score numbers. In the end, though, Smart lands in the top 50 of the NBA in an average of catch-all metrics compiled by Bball Index and, given his All-Defensive Team pedigree in quelling opponents, a case could be made that Smart’s value exceeds his raw numbers as much as any player in the league.