Ask random fans about their opinions of the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and you would be a sure bet to get a wide range of extraordinary answers. Fans will ask themselves in a fit of rage, ‘why does he shoot so many threes?’ His teammates might ask, ‘why does he flop so much?’ Brad Stevens, who loves him, might ask himself, ‘what kind of pass was THAT?’. He strikes a delicate balance of both annoying and instilling fear in his opponents. Meet Marcus Smart. Or as I like to call him, The Marcus Smart Experience. Ok, the Celtics were struggling before he decided to punch something in Los Angeles last month. However, a lot has happened since to suggest that he is among the most important players on this roster after Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Welcome to the Marcus Smart Experience.
Four days after Smart went down on January 23, Stephen Curry hung 49 points on the Cs en route to a 109-105 win. It is the most any player has scored against the Celtics this season. Fast forward to last week in Toronto. The Celtics suffer their worst loss of the season in a 111-91 beat down. It got worse on Friday when Indiana came to town and won. On Sunday, the new-look Cavs destroyed the Celtics on Paul Pierce Day. They gave the Celtics their worst loss of the season for the second time in six days. Finally, the Cs ended the first half with a whimper by giving up a season-high 129 points to the Clippers last night. All without Smart. Coincidence? I think not. The Celtics need his toughness, especially when the intensity ramps up in the final third of the season and playoffs. Last week’s results drove this point home. With a sledgehammer.
Any Celtic fan at or near four decades old will boil down the Celtics’ most frustrating/polarizing players of the past three decades to some form of the following: John Bagley, Acie Earl, “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison, Eric “my least favorite Celtics’ First Round pick of all time” Montross, Antoine Walker (who spawned my “somebody has to put up numbers on abominable teams” theory), Jerome Moiso, Mark Blount, Kedrick Brown, Vin Baker, Ricky Davis, Gerald Green (version 1), Jeff Green, Jermaine O’Neal, and Jared Sullinger. None of those guys, I repeat NONE, compare to the Marcus Smart Experience. In terms of toughness and effort, he is an obvious outlier in that group. His coach has clearly taken notice.
It happened a number of times last post season. The Celtics hit a rough stretch in a game, the wheels started falling off and it looked as though the team had little life. Enter Marcus Smart, witness him make winning basketball plays and watch the team come back. Lather, rinse and repeat. Smart has become the Celtics’ stopper, taking that torch from Avery Bradley. His effort never wavers. In fact, it gets stronger when the Celtics are faced with adversity. Just how many times have we seen this happen? Let’s go back to last year’s playoffs.
Game 1 versus Washington: The Celtics got down 16-0 out of the gate. It was 16-2 when Smart entered with 8:03 remaining in the first quarter. When he was subbed out 14 (!!!) minutes later, the Celtics were down just a point. He started the third quarter of that game, and the Celtics outscored Washington 36-16. The Celtics won.
Game 2 versus Washington: The Celtics were down 10 when Smart entered the game with 3:14 left in the third quarter. By the time he exited the game with 9:02 remaining, the Wizards led by just two. Boston wins again.
Game 3 versus Cleveland: Smart’s brilliance was obvious in the team’s shocking upset win in Game 3. He entered the game for good with 9:42 remaining, Celtics down 6. Celtics win by three.
Yes, Stevens has long relied on him to play crunch time minutes. Time and time again when the Celtics have lacked competitiveness, Stevens’ answer has been Smart. Competitiveness is HUGE in the NBA. It’s a trait Smart brings every single night. The Celtics were not competitive in large stretches against Eastern Conference contenders last week.
His offense remains a trick or treat proposition. But as far as players under 25 years old in the NBA, you’d be hard pressed to find a better young enforcer than Smart. His shooting comes and goes, but his tone setting does not. It is an absolute staple of this team, and he is one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen play for the Celtics.
While Smart’s game is of the GROWN man variety, it is easy to forget that he’ll be just 24 years old in March. His offensive game is nowhere near a finished product. By comparison, Bradley shot 40% from the field in his age 22 season in 2013. Four years later, he was a 46.3% shooter. It can happen, it just takes time. Marcus Smart is living proof that there are many many other ways to contribute on a basketball court. Tons of guys can shoot and score. Very few can make a difference everywhere else. Sure, he can make immature decisions with the ball. But his vision and playmaking ability remain vastly underrated. He might be this team’s most capable passer.
I hear it all the time: “Smart sucks.” His game is by no means pretty or conventional. But there is just something about Smart’s presence that separates him from basically any other Celtic we’ve ever watched. The non-believers will point to his horrible shooting percentages and his penchant for shooting from deep when it’s clearly not a strength. Smart supporters will counter by pointing out that he can guard basically anyone in hoops from the 1-4 spots and that his playmaking ability out of the post is colossally underrated. It will be interesting to see whether he is retained this summer. Regardless of that outcome, one thing has been made clear: This team needs him.